Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Mystery of Cooking

I'm reading a book about food, love, and friendship called The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I picked it up for $4 at Barnes & Noble in the sweet used book section we have in Madison (the B&N is the size of a warehouse). Unfortunately, reading about food isn't making me into a better cook, yet. Ironically, I read the chapter about baking after I baked four dozen or so cookies (it took me three hours). I sort of cringed when I read the part about baking being more like a science than other kinds of cooking. The recipe called for 2 1/4 cups of flour, and I sort of eyeballed the 1/4 on top of the 2 cups. The cookies turned out pretty good, I guess. The thing I don't like about cooking is that you never know what you did wrong. The first tray of cookies were huge; I took the heaping tablespoon a little too literally, it seems. Then, all the subsequent trays got too toasted, even after I moved the oven rack one level lower because I thought they might be too close to the top. I put them in for only seven minutes, and they were too gooey to take out, eight minutes and they were brown. The recipe said 9-11 minutes. Everything burns in our oven, even cornbread. I've made that twice, and put it in for the minimum amount of time, but the edges still got browner than I would like.

A rookie can't spot the errors. Does our oven just cook too fast? Is it the food? Is it all in my mind? Get this-- one time, we were making brownies in our new "brownie pan," that's what they sell it as, a "brownie pan." We poured the batter into the pan, and it didn't even cover the whole surface of the pan. I ask Caleb, "Doesn't the box say 9x13?" "Nope." "But how? This is supposed to be a brownie pan!" Now who's at fault here, me, or the so-called brownie pan that you can't even cook brownies in?

This book I'm reading, they do everything from scratch in the cooking class, even the pasta. And they don't even use a pasta machine. The lady who runs the cooking class just pours in the ingredients, and everything turns out alright. The book is filled with descriptions of decadent food and the memories and images and feelings different spices provoke in those who smell them. I don't get any of those images or feelings burning into my brain when I take a whiff of oregano. The one thing I do get, when I smell the Rosemary, is the memory of playing video games (Dynasty Warriors) with my brother while eating Rosemary-flavored veggie stix.

However, the book is sort of like magical realism, which could explain how the food is really more than food. The restaurant owner, Lillian, has magic food powers that she acquired through a strange childhood with a single mother who read aloud constantly; she knows instinctively what to do. The food they make in the cooking class each month brings a sort of healing to one of the characters in the book, but not as extreme as Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) when the protagonist's emotions are conveyed through the food she cooks so that the diners also experience her feelings.

Last night, I attempted to cook gnocchi for Caleb's first day at work. I personally don't like the stuff, but Caleb loves it. Everything seemed to be going well. The water boiled (you know it's a bad situation when that makes the list for things that go well), the sauce was heating up, I remembered I wanted to cook veggies and garlic bread, too. It was all done by the time Caleb got home and still hot for the most part. But the gnocchi was gross. Too chewy. Followed by the internal barrage of questions, "Did I cook it too long? Was it a bad package? Is this how gnocchi is and I just don't like it? Was it the cheese sauce?" I choked it down, vowing silently never to attempt it again. Caleb kindly reassured me and said that it was packaged and not really the real thing. I hope so. If that's what the real thing tastes like, why would anyone ever eat it? Also ironically, gnocchi was mentioned in passing in the chapter I read after dinner. And this is the same day as making the cookies, then reading about baking.

I like the book because of the way the character's stories are intermingled with the cooking classes. Each character has a chapter, and each chapter happens at a different cooking class with insights into that specific character's story. I like the unusual words she uses like "indiscriminate" and "luxuriantly," two words I apparently can't spell, according to spell check. I also enjoy the profound aphorisms that conclude certain sections of the chapters, like, "Carl was a bird watcher; he knew that not all sticks in a nest are straight" (p.81). Here, she uses an analogy: people are like birds and homes are like nests. It's a beautiful aphorism at this point in the story. It makes you think a little bit, but not too much. If she used fewer similes and metaphors, the reading would be much less clunky (or, there would be fewer lumps in the batter of her book!). Her description alone is often sufficient to create the image, but then she goes ahead and tacks on a simile anyway. This does add to the magical realism element, however.

I got a cookbook as a birthday gift with about 300 recipes, but frankly, I don't know where to start on the thing. Someone said casseroles are the way to go when you're first married because they are fast, easy, and you can eat them again. Perhaps I will start there. This person also said not to worry-- there's always time to start cooking later. She didn't really get into cooking into fifteen years into her marriage. This is good news for me. I don't have to be a pro right now.

Now, it's two o'clock, and I still need to eat lunch. But I am so desperately bored with food and with its disappointments that I have no motivation to go over into the kitchen and heat up some leftover taco meat. I love food, and I wish that by reading a book about loving and cooking food I could cook food better. But, I think this book is just setting up unrealistic expectations for a young cook in her first month of actually cooking. Taco meat, here I come.


  1. Sarah, this is wonderful. I love your writing.
    I feel somewhat guilty for not teaching you to cook. I hope you will forgive me.
    BTW, I have never eaten or cooked gnocchi, but it looks disgusting. Don't beat yourself up about it.
    On the oven thing, try cooking something 25 degrees below what the recipe suggests. It might help. With cookies, the longer the oven is on and the longer the dough sits out affects the cooking time. Both are getting warmer; that may be why later trays of cookies baked faster.

    Keep writing - it's just great! Love, Mom

  2. Can you just please, please write a book? I will do marketing/pr for it for free. Please, please....

    please, please...!

  3. I'm with Jessica :) You are a fantastic writer. Let me tell you something about me. When Dane and I first got married, I was a horrible cook. I attempted Macaroni and Cheese and didn't drain the water. Part of my horrible cooking is due to ADHD which makes it difficult for me to follow simple directions because I get distracted super easy. Everything I cooked was boxed. Dane would say he much preferred his mother's cooking. My feelings were so hurt and I was depressed. I was absolutely determined to become a better cook. I practiced and had a lot of flops but over the years I had more successes. I NEVER made casseroles, because I like to identify my food :), but here we are 10 years later and I have a husband who loves my cooking and looks forward to eating what I serve! You can do it! Don't give up! I rarely ever use boxed or prepackaged food except for things like pasta or beans. If you ever want some fairly easy recipes that are delicious lmk. I am going to go buy that book today, it sounds right up my alley! I <3 cooking

    p.s. gnocchi isn't my favourite either :)