The day I gave up cooking stands out in my memory because it started out as a day full of the best intentions. I was going to follow a recipe. I was going to be patient and let the flavors meld properly. I was definitely not going to cook the way I normally do, which is to google the list of food items that I happened to have in the cupboard at 5:30 pm and see if there was anything at all that could be made from them in a half hour or less.
My husband Steve is the real cook in our family. Let me just say that cook is a misnomer for what he actually does, which is craft gourmet-quality meals, using skills honed over a lifetime of working as a chemist. My only beef with Steve is that these exquisite repasts usually take hours to prepare and since he is chronologically challenged, often results in dinner being served anywhere from 7 pm to o-bed-thirty, by which time we are all starving and he could set a heaping bowl of gruel in front of us at that point and we’d gratefully eat it all up and ask for more.
Up to that day, I had always considered myself an okay cook in that I could take five or six ingredients and combine them to make a meal that would be, if not excellent, at least filling, and would probably not kill you. Almost as importantly, it’d be ready by 6. But lately, my offerings felt like they were lacking a certain something. Like taste, texture, toothsomeness. Steve was just so good and I’ve always been super competitive. Blame it on growing up as one of eleven children. I can’t even take a yoga class without hurting myself trying to prove I can bend over backwards a scootch more than that other grandma doing stretches next to me.
I just wanted to make something without tuna in it for once and that everyone would sigh over and be grateful to eat, oh, and serve it at dinner time, which is when I’m hungry, versus 9 pm, which is when I’m slavering for any remotely food-like substance.
That day I carefully got out the crockpot, paged through the cookbook and selected a recipe. I figured a crockpot recipe was the perfect choice because it satisfied my need to produce something really tasty with only a half hour’s worth of effort. I could slap it together and forget about it until later. Piece of cake. This would also have the added advantage of preventing my usual end of day meltdown which was me realizing I needed to come up with something for dinner and no idea what it was going to be.
Being the work-at-home parent back when the kids were small and Steve was working out of state, it fell to me to make dinner most of the time. I enlisted their help to make the decision as to what dinner was going to be. By the end of the day I just couldn’t muster up the energy to think of what to feed everyone. This resulted in a lot of “backwards dinners” where I’d serve ice cream or pass out the little yogurts. The kids didn’t complain but I felt a lot of guilt over this. I was the parent, dammit. I was supposed to make them eat vegetables at dinner time. There’s rules and things.
And the kids helped, each taking a couple days a week to choose what was going to be on the menu. We ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches (Sam), hamburgers (Nick), and pizza (Alice) back then. It all worked out.
Now, however, I felt like I was competing with Steve to make something more than just edible, hence the stab at crockpot cooking. I remember dutifully reading the ingredients list and layering meat, vegetables and broth into the pot, putting the lid on it and then waiting for the magic to happen.
All day I resisted the urge to peek under the lid to see how it was coming along. I mean, why worry? I was using a recipe! It couldn’t fail. People didn’t just put random instructions in cookbooks without checking to see if they worked first. There were test kitchens. I had heard of them. Probably this recipe had been tweaked at least fifty times before being added to the final edition of this cookbook.
At the crack of 6pm I opened the lid of the crockpot and gazed inside, anticipating juicy pork steaks in tomato sauce, artfully dotted with capers (I was pretty proud of the capers, thinking they lent a certain sophistication to the mix, without actually knowing what, in fact, they were). Instead I saw a crock pot full of dried out slabs of gristle in no sauce whatsoever, just red and green bits stuck to the sides of the pot. It was a disaster.
When Steve came home, I apologetically informed him that dinner was a failure and we would be ordering pizza. He lifted the lid, sniffed the contents, and said, “The capers were because…”, letting the sentence dangle. “They were called for in the recipe,” I said, not at all defensively. Then he tasted it and announced that if I had done three things, which he proceeded to describe in great detail and which I have since completely blocked from my memory, it would have been fine. Edible, in fact.
And that was the moment when I hung up my apron for good. In a hundred million years, I would never have been able to not only diagnose what was wrong with that glop in the crockpot, but to know what it would take to make it delicious.
I was reminded of a time when I called in a repairman to fix the dryer. I’d already tried to repair it myself and managed to lose a screwdriver down the lint trap in the process. The repairman came over that same day. As I let him in and showed him the partly disassembled appliance skulking in the basement, one kid on my hip and the other toddling along behind, he told me something I’d forgotten until now. He said, “It’s okay that you don’t know how to do everything. You don’t have to be an expert at this. It’s okay for someone else to earn a living, too.”