A friend complimented me this weekend, saying I was becoming quite the cook by the looks of my blog. It struck me as funny—sure, I can now gather enough ingredients and courage once a weekend to try something new, but as far as actually making meals for a family, meaning pulling together a full supper every day, I would still be in trouble without my husband, the weeknight cook.
And following recipes gives me headaches. For example, I tried making No-Potato Salad this weekend, with cauliflower instead of potatoes. It called for:
- 1 head cauliflower
- 2 stalks celery
- 1 small onion
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- 2 hard-boiled eggs
- 2 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
The recipe listed only two steps. This was a huge lie.
My biggest pet peeve about most recipes is that they never list dicing vegetables as a step. That should be Step 1, not as a side note in Step 3 (add the vegetables, which you surely have already diced and can’t do now because dicing vegetables will take 30 minutes and you need to move quickly to Step 4. That always makes me want to throw the book out the window.). In this recipe, dice vegetables and boil eggs should be steps, as well as make homemade mayonnaise.
My husband pointed out that I should make the mayonnaise the night before. So Saturday night I broke one egg, separated the yolk into the food processor, then added the teaspoon of liquid that recipe called for. Now I was supposed to blend, but because there was so little in the food processor container, I knew the blade would pass right over the egg yolk, not even touching it. So I added the ½ cup of olive oil, figuring with more volume, everything could now be mixed.
“Why did you do that?” my husband asked, coming in the kitchen at just the perfect time as always. “You didn’t follow the directions—it says add the oil after you’ve blended the egg.”
“Because, ‘if you add the oil too quickly, the emulsion won’t work and the mayonnaise will break up,’” he quoted from the book. “Come on—you’re a teacher! You yell at your students when they don’t follow the directions! Why can’t you follow them yourself?”
I sighed and dumped out my mayo attempt. Together, my husband and I repeated the initial steps, only to find out that yes, when only the egg yolk and teaspoon of water and vinegar are added, the food processor blade will not mix any of it.
“Start over again,” Jason said. “And follow the directions!”
Now I was really getting frustrated. Three attempts and almost half my eggs wasted just trying to get 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise for another f*cking recipe that I hadn’t even started yet. Finally, Jason took out the hand mixer and whipped everything together beautifully.
“The recipe says ‘food processor,’” I told him. “You didn’t follow the directions.”
In Full Moon Feast, Jessica Prentice ponders this very question of following the directions when we cook. She says, “If we were never taught basic culinary skills and principles, following the measurements of a recipe can be greatly empowering—enabling us to cook things that we otherwise never would be able to.” How true this is for me – my own mother is amazing in so many ways, but definitely not in the kitchen. I never learned to cook and now can only do so with the help of my cookbooks. But Prentice goes on to say:
“Unfortunately, in modern America … we become obsessed with following the directions, doing everything just right… Cooking turns into a sort of laboratory experiment, with strict procedures and parameters, and becomes too inflexible and unwieldy to be practical on a daily basis.”
This, too, couldn’t be more true for me. I had thought my cooking experiments (like lab experiments) were impossible to maintain during the week because I was too tired or too inept, but perhaps it’s this scientific approach of finding a formula and following it that’s the problem. What would meals—both preparing them and eating them—be like in my house if I were able to trust my own intuition? Prentice suggests that food cooked this way takes on an even spiritual element.
“We are used to written recipes that are extremely precise, and we are used to following them exactly. But until a little over a century ago there were no such things as measuring cups or spoons. Recipes often gave some ideas as to measurement, but it was vague at best. The cook had to rely on her own judgment skill, and even more important, her senses. She had to really look at the food, to watch it, to touch it, to smell it, to taste it, even to listen to it. This brought the food processor into greater relationship with her ingredients, and even into greater relationship with her own embodied sensual self.”
It might be a stretch, sensuality from food. I wish I knew.
Sunday morning, I read the directions for my No-Potato Salad all the way through and felt very clever recognizing the omitted first step of dicing. So I took out my celery and began.
And groaned. Cutting vegetables takes forever, and while celery is pretty straightforward to cut (probably because it’s literally shaped straight and forward), things like onions and tomatoes baffle me. I’ve never figured out how to cut a tomato – and the egg that I had to dice for this recipe? How do you dice an egg?
(Oh, and by the way—boil the egg—there’s another step omitted from the directions. Luckily Betty Crocker came to my rescue and gave very clear directions on how to hard boil eggs.)
I lined up my celery and neatly slit the stalks in half, lengthwise. Then I slowly cut slivers off each end and then halved them. It was meticulous work, which is definitely not my strong suit, but I kept at it, carefully. I straightened up and smiled at my full bowl. It had taken about 20 minutes to dice a measly two celery stalks, but they looked good!
I was just beginning my onion when my husband came in.
“That celery is all wrong,” he said. “You gotta cut them smaller.”
“What?!” I cried. “Those are perfect!”
He scoffed. “Not for a salad. Go to any grocery store and look at their—“
“Go away!” I hissed, almost crying. “I was so goddamn proud of those!”
He left. I felt crushed and wanted to dump everything down the sink. Instead I decided to ignore him and the stupid book with its omitted directions. The cauliflower had been steaming for 7 minutes, as the recipe said. But it didn’t feel tender, so I let it steam a few more minutes. Later, after I’d cooled the cauliflower and stirred all the ingredients together, the salad seemed too crumbly and boring. So I added twice as much the homemade mayonnaise as it called for. I was committing what felt like a cardinal sin—I was not following the directions.
“I HATE cooking,” I grumbled as I shoved the bowl in the fridge.
Prentice has a theory, too, on why I’m not alone in my hatred of cooking. Many women rebelled against it, she says, when society moved to prepackaged food. Cooking is no longer a vital part of our lives because we can buy everything from the store. Our role, as females, as providers for the family, has been devalued, and what little cooking we do lacks the love, expression and creativity it once had. In other words, there’s no art in nuking a bag of frozen corn. Food preparation did not used to be looked on as drudgery, Prentice writes, because it provided nutrition and was filled with “spiritual resonance.”
Against all odds, my No-Potato Salad was a hit at the barbecue I brought it to. Our friends’ daughters asked for second and third helpings, and all the adults (including my husband) all said how wonderful it was. It certainly wasn’t a spiritual creation, but it was tasty, nonetheless.
Feeling: Almost nostalgic for days before I ever lived