It’s a dirty little secret. I’m downright ashamed. But it’s also the truth: I can’t cook.
I’m surrounded by foodies with prominent names, but honest to Pete… I can’t cook.
As a culture, we don’t just enjoy the taste of food. We adore the ritual of it…
When I got an email from a good friend this summer inviting me to join her “cookbook book club” (say that ten times fast), I had a moment of mild – no, moderate — panic. Each of us was to prepare a recipe from the chosen book of the month – in this case, Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman — and then bring enough of it for the group of six to enjoy.
The hostess’ boyfriend, I recalled as I skimmed her note, is an active member of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance. My Instagram feed is forever flush with the artfully-shot exotic cuisines they enjoy on a regular basis. Their friends were probably of the same ilk, I reasoned – folks who whip things up without looking at recipes. Folks who don’t fret about how to say “gnocchi.” Folks who know what burrata is. Folks who aren’t like me.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of cooking. The feeling of calm that washes over us when we’re doing something granular, mixed with the sensuality of smells and tastes and colors galore – that stuff is intoxicating. There’s a reason the Food Network has such a following; there’s a reason so many food blogs exist. As a culture, we don’t just enjoy the taste of food. We adore the ritual of it: the selection of ingredients, the preparation, anticipation, presentation. There’s so much theater. So much pride.
At the right moment, a piece of toast and smear of jam makes us feel at home.
We love nourishing the people we hold close – or people we want to impress – with the fruits of our labor. We kind of get off on putting something together from scratch and making someone else feel good when they sit down to the beautiful display we’ve concocted for them to devour. It’s kind of its own language of love, cooking. It’s transformative, an act of service, of giving without expecting something in return. It’s romantic and emotional, even if it’s just a loaf of bread. At the right moment, a piece of toast and smear of jam makes us feel at home. The clink of a handmade cocktail in someone’s living room tells us we’re welcome; that we belong to something outside of ourselves.
Although my attempts in the kitchen haven’t always been delicious or anything even close to it, I realize the importance of being able to compose a plate full of something edible. Particularly at a time when it’s more evident than ever that no one but ourselves can truly take responsibility for what we put into our bodies, when terms like “organic,” “sustainable” and “natural” can roll off the tongue (or get slapped on a label) a bit too easily without carrying real weight, we should probably all get it in gear and do a bit more for ourselves where meal prep is concerned. Luckily, we live in a city that values its growers, its farms and its own local flavor – a place that takes its food, if not itself, pretty seriously.
We live in a city that values its growers… a place that takes its food, if not itself, pretty seriously.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m as intimidated as I am inspired by this ambitious town of ours. Okay, I made a little smoothie that didn’t come out half-bad. Oh hey, look up the street: Paul Qui just made ice cream from cheddar cheese and did seven different things with a rabbit.
I just learned this year what burrata is, and I’ve no idea how to prepare meat – any kind of meat. My popcorn-burning adventures are the stuff of legend among close friends. At least I can make a mojito?
Although I’ve grown accustomed to bringing multiple bottles of wine to pot luck events — because who ever complains about the person who brought wine? — I knew I had to play along this time. Since showing up to a cookbook book club brunch with a bottle of Malbec on each hip would be nothing short of asinine, I clicked “yes” on the invite and considered my options.
Getting started is the hard part… The first thing to do is show up.
Getting started is the hard part, I told myself. It’s like writing, or art, or anything else: finding our flow and letting it carry us somewhere is really kind of up to the universe. The first thing to do is show up.
I cheated, of course. Convincing myself I didn’t have the time or the extra $35 to hunt down the book and make it mine, I went to the Smitten Kitchen blog and found the simplest, appetizer-iest thing on the site. I marched myself to Whole Foods, gathered up some olives, artichokes, capers and garlic, and made myself a tapenade. Once at my friend’s house, I sliced up a baguette, popped it in the oven, and cobbled together something like crostini before the other guests arrived.
“Here, use this; it’ll look pretty,” my friend said, handing me a tiered platter.
Hot damn, it did. It looked pretty.
“I didn’t use the book,” I confessed once everyone was seated. “I totally went online.”
“Oh, I did, too,” one guest piped up. “I mean, the book was kind of expensive.”
We all nodded.
“This is all really good, though,” she continued as I glanced at her plate and saw the crumbs from my crostini amid the other things people had brought. “Maybe I’ll go back and buy it.”
Me too, I thought. Why not?
Hey, I have no delusions of grandeur about being one of those people who can pull together a fabulous dinner for six at the drop of a hat, or even a person who doesn’t burn popcorn. But I can tell you this: I’m a person who made migas last weekend, and roasted beets the other night. Neither dish turned out half bad.
(The first thing to do is show up.)
a handful of non-catastrophes are edging me toward bolder territory.
I’m no Padma Lakshmi yet and probably never will be, but a handful of non-catastrophes are edging me toward bolder territory. The idea of handling, say, an entire holiday meal without leaning on the prepared foods aisle is still a little much to take. But maybe someday I’ll get there. If the spirit moves me, anyway. If I’m in the mood to shock someone.
At next month’s club, it’s Fabio’s Italian Kitchen by Fabio Viviani. I’m bringing drunken strawberries. It’s made of just four things: strawberries, cream, sugar and wine. I snapped a photo of the recipe since last month’s hostess had the book handy – yes, another form of cheating, I know. Don’t worry, ethicists… if I manage to crank out something this side of poisonous, I’ll hunker down after and invest in the whole thing.
Maybe it’s the wine already talking, but something tells me I just might.
Photography: Chris Perez