If my Grandma was reading this right now, she’d be rolling over in her grave. Or shaking around in her urn.
Gram was the best cook I ever met. She could cook anything from scratch, without a recipe — chicken noodle soup, pastas, cookies, nut rolls, blueberry pies and pancakes, the berries fresh-picked from her backyard. After she retired, she even volunteered to cook for the nuns at a nearby convent, and all the men who married into our family liked to say they gained at least twenty pounds the first few years of being around my Gram’s cooking. Any time someone asked for her advice on how much of a certain ingredient they should add to make their gravy or icing juuuuuust right, she’d shrug one shoulder, wave her hand, and say, “Enough,” then laugh when we stared at her, mystified.
Her daughter, my mom, can hold her own in the kitchen. While I don’t think she’s ever enjoyed cooking as much as my Gram did, and relies a little more on recipes, she can whip up delicious soups and stews, and makes a mean peach cobbler and melt-in-your-mouth brownies.
My younger sister is a whiz in the kitchen too. She’s not afraid to try new, exotic recipes, and anytime she decorates cookies or cupcakes, the end product looks like something you’d see on Pinterest.
But the cooking gene must have skipped me.
Looking back, I never had any interest in observing my mom or Gram in the kitchen. I was always in awe of how they created a delicious finished product from the wide array of ingredients, but the thought of making something myself was too overwhelming. I guess you could say cooking made me anxious. Surprise, huh?
By the time I was a teenager, Mom would leave simple instructions for me to follow to get dinner started before she came home from work. Browning ground meat, chopping vegetables, boiling water for noodles. For the most part, I think I handled things well. But I do remember several occasions where I had to call her at work for some random disaster or clarification on a certain step.
Once I started working my first series of jobs after high school, I began to branch out a bit more with food prep. I had my own schedule that didn’t always jive with my parents’ dinner plans, so I took to making simple things like stir fry and chicken pasta. Aside from the one time I burned rice, everything turned out pretty much okay. (I burned the rice because I’d never seen anyone actually read directions for rice. I figured you just dump water in a pot, boil it, add rice til it’s fluffy. I didn’t realize there was a perfect rice to water ratio you had to adhere to).
But when I attempted to move to the intermediate level of cooking, things went awry. Cookie dough, cake batter, and sauces never seemed to be the right consistency and I didn’t know how to fix them. I inevitably, well, ruined, a roux any time I tried to make it. (Side note: I was approximately thirty years old before I knew what the word roux meant. My mom’s family, being 100% Slovak, called it “zaprashka.”). Regardless of what the stuff was called, I simply couldn’t pull it off. And somehow the amount of time and ingredients listed in recipes never seemed to work for me. I remember one time in particular when I wanted to cook a homemade meal for J for our very first anniversary in 2009. I found an “easy” recipe for Alfredo sauce made from scratch. It was only supposed to take something like twenty minutes. But somehow I was still scrambling, stirring, and sweating forty-five minutes later and was nearly in tears by the time J arrived.
Things did not improve when J and I got married and bought our house. For a long time, the most intimidating part of my day was making dinner. J was working night shift then, so I had no one to help me. There were (and still are) times that I avoided recipes all together because I had no idea what certain words or phrases meant. (ie: Blanch vegetables. Risotto. Shallot. Xanthan gum. Arborio rice. Majoram. Chutney. Quinoa. What does it mean to “prepare a baking sheet?” And how the hell do you get egg whites??) My feelings were that if I had to Google something, it was way over my head and I shouldn’t even bother attempting to cook it.
Over the years, my cooking has improved and I’ve become a tiny bit more adventurous. But there have been some doozies —
- The time I tried to make heart-shaped sugar cookies for our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple:
- A few weeks ago, when my mother-in-law gave me one of those “complete meal delivered to your house with step-by-step instructions.” The dinner was supposed to be steaks, asparagus, and mashed potatoes. The difficulty level was medium. Well. One hour, many tears, two panic attacks, and dozens of swear words later, all that was edible was the asparagus. The steaks were somehow simultaneously bloody and burned and I’d ruined my best pan in the process. Plus the mashed potatoes had only amounted to what I have dubbed lumpy potato water. I called my sister in a panic and I got so frustrated and confused while she was trying to help me that we ended up hanging up on each other and I ate cereal for dinner that night.
- Most recently, for Christmas Eve, I decided to try an “easy” recipe for chocolate chip cookie dough dip. The total time was only listed as 5 minutes and there were only 6 ingredients. You didn’t even have to use an oven! I couldn’t screw that up, could I?
Yes. Yes I could.
Here’s what the dip was supposed to look like:
And here’s what mine looked like:
“How could something so simple go so wrong?” You ask. I’ll tell you!
First of all, I don’t have my own mixer. Because, you know, I can’t cook. So I asked to borrow my mom’s. “Just so you know, its only setting is ‘hyper.'” She warned.
So there I am, holding a bowl of softened butter and cream cheese in one hand and the mixer-on-steroids in the other while clumps of the mixture sprays all over my just-cleaned kitchen and the hoodie I bought in London, all the while thinking that one little slip of my hand is all it’s going to take for the beaters to cut my fingers into ribbons. I attempted to hand-mix the concoction, but the ingredients weren’t cooperating. For some reason I thought that adding the brown sugar and powdered sugar would help matters, but of course that only complicated things. After only a few stirs with my rubber scraper, I had greasy batter all over my hands, my hoodie, and the counter top, and granules of brown sugar embedded under my fingernails. The bag of powdered sugar was precariously perched on the edge of the sink, where a thin film of the white stuff had coated the silvery surface. Not to mention that prior to all this, I attempted to salvage five-year-old brown sugar from my canister on the counter but soon discovered it would only be removed with nothing short of a jackhammer. So chunks of said substance were crystallizing near the drain.
In the end, my husband ended up finishing off the mixing, considering he was able to control psycho-mixer more effectively. Once the dip was finally a smooth consistency, I added the chocolate chips and attempted to clean up the bowl it occupied.
The dip tasted okay once paired with graham crackers, and luckily there were only a handful of people present for Christmas Eve, all of them understanding family. But I was still irritated that something supposedly so simple had turned complicated for me. And I also didn’t understand why mine looked like it could barely feed a toddler while the picture made it look like it could feed thirty people.
I’m not sure where I stand when it comes to cooking and baking. Sometimes I try things like vegetable lasagna and they turn out fantastic. Other times I fail epically at the simplest recipes.
All I know for sure is that if there is an afterlife, Gram is laughing hysterically.