The other day I was in the kitchen, cooking parts of 3 meals at once. Everything was humming perfectly, the pie shells were in the oven, the salad veggies were waiting on the cutting board, a sauce was bubbling on the stove, and I was feeling like master of the kitchen. I pulled a green pepper from the refrigerator, placed it on the cutting board and grabbed a knife. As I cut the top from the pepper, sliced the middle section out and washed out the seeds I remembered something a friend told me years ago while our small children were playing together. It is a memory that is triggered by green peppers, of all things. This lady and I had known each other before marriage, and now we were raising our children in the same town. Our young daughters were friends, and we had many play dates at the local park. Years ago, when I was attending college and living in another state, her parents used to invite the college students over for Sunday lunches after church in her home. We would help in the kitchen, participate in cheerful conversation and enjoy home cooked meals. At the park, my friend mentioned that she had been talking with her mother about me, that we now lived in the same town and our girls were friends, and then she mentioned that I was homeschooling my children. Her mother said, “I can’t imagine her as a mother, at my house she didn’t even know how to cut a pepper and now she is homeschooling her kids.” I was always nervous in anyone’s home, and I remember helping uncomfortably in the kitchen. In my house my mom did all the kitchen work. I could plant and grow peppers, and any other vegetable, I could weed the garden and mow the lawn, but I had rarely helped in the kitchen, so those skills were not as developed. I am sure the transition from an extremely shy college student without homemaking skills to a stay at home mother teaching her own children would seem like a huge change to her. She might have meant it as a compliment, that I had grown and learned. I chose to take it that way.
I thought about that comment many times over the years. Every time I grabbed a pepper from the fridge I would remember it. When I first lived on my own I hardly knew how to do anything in the kitchen, I had to use a cookbook to boil eggs, grill hamburgers, and cook nearly any supper. I remember slicing two hot dogs down the middle, laying a sliver of cheese in the slices and broiling the hot dogs in my toaster, and being so proud of my culinary skills. Luckily we can grow and learn. I refused to take home economics in high school because I didn’t want to be forced into traditional female roles. I rarely babysat, I preferred to mow yards or work in the garden if I had to, and so when I found myself a stay at home mother I had a lot to learn. The first little baby I had ever held was my own son, at the hospital after my 4 hours of labor. When the nurse handed me the clean baby, I was terrified. He was so warm, so heavy for such a tiny bundle, and so very dependent on my husband and me. Now I have three children, I cook most of our meals at home, and nearly all of them from scratch. I had never wanted to be a housewife, but when children came along I wanted to create a home like my mother had done. I was not following traditional roles for the sake of the role; I wanted to do what was best for the family.
I finished chopping the vegetables, and turned to the sauce I was cooking for my supper. I had made meatballs, and was heating a sweet and sour sauce to go over them, while preparing a salad and a pie for the next day. The directions for the sauce called for cornstarch to be added to the boiling juice. I checked on the pie, it wasn’t ready, and then I measured out the starch, still thinking about how much I had learned and improved in the kitchen since my college days. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought about the fact that cornstarch should be dissolved into a cold liquid, but the directions didn’t say this and I was moving fast. Even as I pulled the tablespoon away I saw the lumps forming in the liquid, never to dissolve. I whisked furiously, but finally I had to take a slotted spoon and fish out all the floating cornstarch balls.
On one hand there is always hope for inexperienced and new cooks. One doesn’t have to be good at something to become good at it; all we need is the desire to learn. I went from someone that wasn’t sure how to open a green pepper, to making bread, soups, and meals daily for my family. At the same time, I should never get too confident; any skill learned is also a skill easily messed up. As we go through life we are always learning, we never arrive, because there is always more to learn. For that I am glad, if I had ever arrived and knew it all, life would loose interest. Also, the sweet and sour meatballs still tasted good, the sauce thickened even without the cornstarch balls floating in the sauce, and the salad and pie were pretty good the next day.
Anyone can learn to cook in the kitchen; I say it takes the talented ones to learn how to create meals after the mistakes are made. To be a problem solver in the kitchen is the real talent. My daughter made cupcakes recently for a friend. She cooked a recipe from scratch, and frosted the tops to look like ocean waves. She cooked sugar cookies and cut them out to look like sharks fins. She spent some time mixing her frosting to achieve shark grey, frosted the cookies and stuck them in the cupcakes. Now she had 24 ocean blue topped cupcakes with shark fins sticking out of the top. Just before we left the house to deliver the cupcakes she looked them over, and realized two of the cupcakes had no shark fins. She had no fin shaped cookies left. She had no colored icing left. It was almost time to leave. I had baked the rest of the dough in circles, just to have cookies to snack on. She took a sharp knife, and cut out shark fins from the already cooked round cookies. It took several tries to get that right. In a bowl she mixed a small amount of sugar and water, making icing. She began adding coloring, and quickly arrived at a steel grey, not exactly the same but close enough to fit in. In just a few minutes she had solved her problem, and all 24 cakes had been infested with sharks. The little boys and girls in the preschool class were happy with the shark cupcakes, and all was good, after a little panic and quick thinking. My daughter could look at this experience one of two ways, either she messed up and wasn’t that good in the kitchen, or she was a quick thinker and problem solver. There is no cook that never has problems in the kitchen; that is just the way it is. Good cooks look at the problems, and resolve them.
We are not defined by the green peppers we can’t open, but by our ability to learn.