When I was a child, the kitchen was always a mysterious place. My mother would tie her “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” apron on and disappear in there, banging around the pea green and pale yellow cupboards for hours. Eventually she’d emerge, and huge platters of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans would magically appear. I’d only venture in there occasionally, usually to steal a juicy sliver of roasted turkey or snatch a piping hot fried doughnut, fresh out of the oil. I was usually met with my mom’s frowning face. “Get outta here!” she’d scold, waving her wooden spoon at me, and I’d zip back into the living room to do the one thing I was good at: wreaking havoc with my brothers.
Maybe it was because my mom banned me, or maybe it was because I had zero interest in the endless stirring, sifting and rolling of ingredients–I simply never learned how to cook. Eating was my forte. After keeping this shameful secret for so long, I can finally stand up and admit:
I am a bad cook.
It wasn’t until I was living far away from home in a college dorm when I realized just how terrible I was at cooking–cooking anything. If it wasn’t microwavable, I was stumped. My roommate was understandably stunned when I confessed to her I didn’t even know how to make the basics, like hot dogs or Ramen noodles–the staples of any starving college student. After she finished laughing–and this went on for a good 30 minutes or so–she patiently showed me how to do complicated things, like dump a jar of sauce into a pan and stir in the frozen meatballs. “You mean, I just keep stirring, like this?” I’d sheepishly ask her, turning red from embarrassment. I was 17, and my first few cooking lessons were: 1) How to boil water 2) How not to burn the sauce. I barely succeeded.
I continued on with my pathetic cooking skills up until the present. I would love to say that now, over 24 years later, I am a culinary genius; that I put Ina Garten or Julia Child to shame. Well, if all three of us were in a Deviled Egg Contest, I might win. (It helps that one of them is no longer living.) Deviled eggs was the one recipe I perfected over the years. At every holiday or get-together my relatives could count on Darla’s Damn Delicious Deviled Eggs to make an appearance.
My husband would walk into the kitchen. “Ooh! God! Blech! What
smells in here?” he’d ask, his face scrunched up in disgust.
“Deviled eggs!” I’d gush. “I’m making them for the Fourth of July picnic!”
And for Thanksgiving? Why, deviled eggs! Christmas? Eggs! New Year’s? Guess. Oh, there was the one time for Easter when I went out on a limb and made deviled eggs. Apparently, I can handle boiling water on the stovetop. On the other hand, it seems the oven is still a scary place for me. Being a klutz, I have a ridiculously intense phobia I will burn myself. If my husband wants nachos, I have to put on a full-body oven mitt to even come close to that burning inferno of salsa and melted cheese.
Thankfully, there are three things I can do very well, and this has saved my butt in the kitchen on many occasions:
1) I can read. Even better, I can follow a recipe. Hallelujah! And if I can read the steps a few dozen times in preparation, then carefully refer to each step a few more times while I am doing them, I am usually able pull it off. Usually. More often than not, re-reading the steps just push me over the edge quicker. My cooking sessions end up ugly; full of imagined taunts from the real chefs and unbridled swearing from me. For example:
Paula Deen’s Southern Cornbread Stuffing
(why is it that the first time I read her recipe, her voice is all syrupy sweetness in my head, but with each re-reading, her southern twang takes on a more irritated tone?)
In a large bowl, combine crumbled cornbread, dried white bread slices, and saltines; set aside. Okay, crumbled, she says. I can do crumbled! Umm…like this?
Okay, okay, I hear you Paula, jeez, don’t get your panties all in a bunch! You don’t have to smirk at me. I’ll try to crumble. Wait a minute, the bread is lumpy now. (I frantically try to find my husband) Honey, come over here and help me! Do I use a knife to crumble the bread or my hands? For the love of God, what does “crumble” mean? I can’t measure anything that’s crumbled! Why, Paula, why? (This is usually the point where I rip off my apron and toss it into the oven.)
Add the celery and onion and cook until transparent, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Okay, I’m cooking the celery and onions, but are they transparent? They still look kinda opaque. Is opaque good? No? What the hell does opaque mean anyway? Transparent means clear? What? Good lord, where is that &*%ing dictionary? Calm down, Darla. Deep breaths. I’ll read the recipe again. Yep, Paula says they have to be transparent. Oh god, why does she insist on these things? Approximately 5 to 10 minutes, y’all. Approximately? Does she mean five minutes or seven? What if she means 10? I’ve cooked them for 11 minutes now and they still aren’t transparent. More like a deep rust color. Is this bad?
Dammit, Paula, shut up! I’m not your darlin’! I’m just trying to cook some @#$%ing onions and I’m crying already! (I frantically try to find my husband) Honey? Honey! Can you help me? Honey, where are you?
2) I can measure. I am a very meticulous measurer. Every ingredient has to be exact. There will be no spontaneous or questionable “eh, it kinda, sorta looks like a tablespoon…” or “I don’t have salt so I’ll mix in some Mrs. Dash instead” cooking in my kitchen. I would never dream of dumping sugar into my hand like Rachael Ray, then casually tossing it into the bowl like I’m throwing confetti in a parade. Oh, no. I will pour that sugar into a measuring cup and eyeball it to death. If someone ever invents a new kitchen gadget that resembles a tiny leveling tool, I’d be all over it.
Oh, shut up, Rachael. Who invited you? Why don’t you go throw some salt all over the place, dump some of your precious EVOO all over it, then “pop” some food in the oven and leave me alone to cry in my onions.
3) I can use my secret ingredient: Love. Whenever I make dinner, I never hesitate to inform the innocent victims at the table that my dish was made with it; I heaped it on there like my life depended on it. Without love, I’m afraid my cooking would be even worse, if that were possible (and it isn’t).
Miraculously, these few cooking abilities have enabled me to pull off a casserole dish or two. I (barely) managed to make a delicious (homemade!) stuffing for Thanksgiving last year (from scratch!) And nobody died after eating it. Did I mention it was homemade? I spent hours cutting bread into mind-numbing cubes with my own two little klutzy, clueless, oven-mitted hands (you try holding a knife with mitts on). Everybody raved about my stuffing. I think most of us were in shock it was so delicious–the turkey was all but ignored. The success of my stuffing ranked right up there with completing my college degree. I was so proud and made so much of it, we were eating stuffing with every single meal for an entire week. But dammit, it was tasty. We still talk about it. “Remember that stuffing you made last year?” my husband will ask with a dreamy look in his eyes. “Oh, yeah! It was good, wasn’t it?” I’ll sigh while scraping burnt tomato soup out of yet another ruined pot.
Even though I am a self-confessed bad cook, my husband is not. (God brought us two together for a reason.) He is a phenomenal cook and, even better, he loves to do it. Whenever I tell my friends, “Oh, Jim’s getting dinner ready,” they tell me how lucky I am. I always point out, he’s lucky I don’t cook. It all works out for the best.
So this Thanksgiving, as you’re slaving away in the kitchen, elbow-deep in roasted rosemary turkey with sprigs of thyme and carving cranberries into tiny Mayflowers, think of me.
I’ll be making stinky eggs.
Happy cooking and joyous eating, my friends!
Eat, drink, and be merry with the ones you love!
Be grateful I don’t cook for you! Oh, and–
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
I am taking an extended break from blogging…hopefully I’ll see you all around the New Year (if I survive the holidays)