One of my proudest moments in the kitchen was back in college. Friends and I agreed to put together a potluck for Easter Sunday. I had volunteered to make a ham, perhaps only to impress my boyfriend John visiting from England. As soon as I committed to cooking the ham, I instantly regretted doing so, realizing the gravity of the situation: I had not the slightest idea of how to make a ham. It’s even more daunting for someone who subsisted mostly upon pasta and red sauce (no meat) for an entire semester. To this day, the mere thought of pasta and red sauce turns my stomach queasy.
In the end, and much to my surprise, the Easter ham was delicious – juicy, marinated in 7-Up and topped with pineapple rounds – all thanks to a few panicked phone calls to my mother both in the grocery store to figure out which ham to purchase and in the kitchen baking it.
Fast forward some years later and boyfriend now husband mercifully does all of the cooking, partly because he’s actually good at it and also because he knows what he’s doing. Unlike me.
But every month he travels out of town on business and I’m left to my own devices. On these days, I make dinner plans with friends, grab take-out or make sure the freezer is stocked with fool-proof options. Ham miracle aside, my culinary repertoire is rather limited. Mac and cheese? Sure! Pierogies? Of course, I’m Polish! I have a recipe for a spinach salad I make on holidays and I can whip up a mean version of an Egg McMuffin. And that’s about it.
One particular disastrous month by myself, I tried to cook a “mushroom and egg pasta,” also known as a mushroom carbonara, from a vegetarian British cookbook. The recipe said to add beaten eggs to the cooked pasta and the hot pasta would “cook” the eggs. That night when I went to bed, I was fairly certain that I had salmonella poisoning.
My mother has often wondered where she went wrong with me and why I can’t hold my own in the kitchen. I offer no excuses or apologies, but have no desire to immerse myself in the culinary arts.
Then, for about a week last year, I suddenly had to step up to the stove and cook because John was recuperating from a surgery. The pressure was on.
My first meal was Baked Shells: shells, marinara, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, bake. I set a plate in front of John and looked expectantly in his direction. The best he could manage was sliding a few shells around and taking two bites. He apologized that he couldn’t eat more, but the pain medication had taken away his appetite. I understood, but I felt rather disheartened. I mean, I cooked this. I was proud of it.
The next night, he suggested that he’d prefer to have a few things and just “graze.” To answer this request, I assembled an American’s best attempt at a Ploughman’s: sliced apples, cheese, bread and chutney. I also made a salad of cucumbers tossed in sour cream and dill, an old recipe I remembered of my mom’s that I always liked.
Evening after, I felt totally spent. I was out of ideas. My repertoire and creativity in the kitchen had run dry. Standing in Trader Joe’s, I felt dizzy as I wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles. I couldn’t fathom how to put the offerings I saw before me into a meal. I felt overwhelmed and a bit inadequate, not to mention frustrated.
I called home and snapped at John as I stared at the sushi rolls. “I think we have some shrimp in the freezer. Let’s defrost that and have it with cocktail sauce.” I know I can’t mess that up.
That suggestion receives a less than enthusiastic response. “So, what do you want to eat, then?”
He’s not sure; he just wants to nibble on a few things. When I ask “like what?,” he doesn’t know.
I tell him that we have a myriad of leftovers in the fridge and why doesn’t he just pick and choose something to eat from there? He starts to imply that if I run to Jewel, I could pick up whatever Jewel has that Trader Joe’s doesn’t stock. Now I’ve run out of patience. I’m not going to Jewel. I’m in this grocery store and I’m not going anywhere else.
That night, I made myself an Egg McMuffin. I think he reheated the Baked Shells.
I apologized later for losing my cool with him on the phone in the grocery store. I understood he was sick and not feeling well. I was trying to help the best I could. I’d just run out of steam.
When he was finally up and moving around again, I sighed with relief. I was off the hook and out of the kitchen!
That week made me realize I’ve probably been taking John and his meal preparations for us for granted and I resolved to be more grateful. So, it is with extreme admiration that I acknowledge anyone out there who can skillfully manage their way around a kitchen.
Maybe someone out there can teach me how to make a mushroom carbonara with no fear of salmonella poisoning?