Kitchen anxiety

July 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

While I thoroughly enjoyed writing up tonight’s successful meal in my blog, I thought I should make a quick note to any and all of my readers about my kitchen prowess.

No, kitchen anxiety.

I was blessed with the kind of mommy who can whip anything up at the drop of a hat, even on days when she is most tired and make it appear completely effortless and, sometimes, like a casual afterthought. “Oh, my children are hungry for dinner, again? I suppose tonight I shall serve them a lasagne from scratch.” While I was never kept out of the kitchen (and was, repeatedly, handed a golden invitation to stay and watch, stay and help, stay and learn somethinganything), I (im)politely kept my distance and safety net. If it comes in a box and requires merely hot water, I can do it. If it has a complicated recipe, with dicing and chopping and peeling and folding and tempering, I collapse into an insecure mess. Because my mom is a whiz in the kitchen, I had it pretty easy as a kid. I was far too stubborn to be lured into the joys of cooking, and my mom was (frankly) too busy to put up with my crap. I think she always knew, deep down, that despite my threats and fears that I would feed my own children hotdogs cut up in Spaghetti O’s on a regular basis, I would somehow overcome my stubborn shyness and would find my way back into the kitchen. If out of necessity than for nothing else.

Well, I have found my way back into the kitchen. And I’m pulling out some of my mom’s “old” (read: tried and true) recipes–comfort casseroles from my childhood, soups that take all day to simmer but taste divine, stove-top recipes that require constant stirring and attentiveness. I do this now because I have a husband, and somehow this need to feed sprang up where it originally had never been. I used to shirk the “duties” of a woman and fed myself whatever crap was cheap and fast and easy. I was only feeding myself, after all. Sure, I have to take responsibility for myself, but there’s not much accountability (ha!). When feeding another person, however, and another person who happens to exude confidence in the kitchen, I feel like I should at least try harder.

But I still have this kitchen anxiety. And it rears its ugly head at the most inappropriate times. Take tonight, for instance. The recipe requires that the white sauce be stirred continuously. I have burned a number of white sauces in my day, so I grasp what “continuously” means, and I likewise grasp the direct consequences for ignoring the adverb. Tonight I stood there, watching my biggest pot boil up the veggies, stirring my white sauce for nearly half an hour…and then I started to see little brown flakes. Nothing terribly huge or particularly damaging, but alarming nonetheless. I called for Robert to come help me–he told me later that he recognized the tone in my voice and is learning how to cope with it. So, he springs to life, offering all kinds of help…and apparently all that needs to be done is to remove the sauce and the veggies from the burners and put them together–soup’s on.

The elation I felt at having successfully replicated my absolute favorite meal (and one I beg my mom to make me on special occasions, like back surgeries or Christmas Eve-eve) was extraordinary! I couldn’t stop squealing, “We did it! We actually made potato soup!” (I realize for the public at large this may not be the feat it seems, but recall my kitchen anxiety.) Robert continued to correct me and said, “No…you made potato soup. I peeled a couple of carrots and potatoes.” I am excited. I am proud. I am feeling at least optimistic that my children may one day get to claim my favorite comfort meal as their own, too.

I know I need to get over this kitchen anxiety because it makes the cooking process less fun than it should be. I find myself rather stricken by any moment that goes unexpectedly or against the recipe. In fact, the other night Robert and I had no menu in mind, but our stomachs were growling. We knew we had chicken breasts that needed to be cooked before they turned on us. Tired and disgruntled, I said, “Well…do I need to go to Winn-Dixie and get some Chicken Helper or something?” Robert laughed and said, “No, baby. We have a bunch of spices and bread crumbs. We’ll figure something out.” What does my genius husband prepare for us? Baked chicken spread with buttery bread crumbs and lemon pepper seasoning. The entire hour the chicken was baking, I was fraught with nerves. Every once in a while, I would look at him and ask if he was sure it would even be edible. I started figuring out whether or not we could afford to order a pizza, just in case. And of course the meal was brilliant. The chicken cooked, the buttery bread crumbs toasted, and the lemon pepper seasoned. We were well-fed that night and happy. But, do you know, I actually still went to bed feeling anxiety about that meal? I can’t seem to win. I am either going to have anxiety about cooking with a net (otherwise, a recipe) or not, and those seem to be the only two options here.

Robert told me tonight that I am honing these cooking skills to such a point that he’s no longer curious how dinner will turn out. (Had always been a joke between us, considering the first meal I ever made him turned out to be this gray mushy mess in the crock-pot…but oh-so-good, and he ate seconds. Good man.) He told me that the only thing I need to learn in the kitchen at this point is how to be confident in my ability to cook, and to cook well.

On a final note, I’m reading Julie and Julia. I feel a certain kinship to Julie Powell, and it’s nice to know that someone like her was capable of overcoming her kitchen anxiety to such a point that she learned not only how to replicate Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but also to the point that she learned how to make mistakes in the kitchen and not fall to complete pieces. This is the hardest lesson of all.

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