Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cooking and Swimming

Cooking and swimming are similar. Before you know how to do either, you desperately hope you won't be thrown into a situation where such knowledge is required of you, and do not know what you will do if it happens. You may depend on frozen dinners or life-vests, and certainly on other people, seeing the skill you lack as something large, mysterious, and perhaps altogether impossible.

Then, once you learn it, you realize it isn't so difficult after all. I can't cook like Julia Child or swim like Michael Phelps, but I can cook well enough to feed myself and swim well enough to have fun and not drown. I can't remember what it feels like to not be able to swim, as I had proper swimming lessons when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, but I definitely remember my paralyzing inability to cook, which has only been changing this school year.

Before I started learning, I had this idea that cooking was some big, difficult, mostly magical process that was easy to screw up. I had no idea if, once I learned some basics, I would be one of those women whose cooking was playfully mocked at every dinner party--as if I even attend dinner parties. I thought perhaps I'd be able to follow a recipe, if I know how to "braise" or "sauté" or how to cook multiple dishes at the same time, but I didn't know how some people can make up their own recipes and have them taste good. I didn't know what tasted good together or how much salt to add or how to cook a piece of chicken so that it was safe to eat and not too dry. None of it made sense. Are all spoons and spatulas simply magic wands disguised?

This past summer, I suppose I decided that I didn't want to spend another school year living on Easy Mac, Rice Krispies, and Chick-fil-A, and that it was high time I, too, learned the wizardry of the kitchen. My mother taught me how to cook chicken and steak on the stove, and I realized that to cook meat, you basically need to make sure the outside is cooked and the inside is safe, and if you can do that with a stove or a grill or a campfire, you're fine. During the school year, I started to realize what kinds of things can be mixed together. If things taste good together, put them together. If you can blend them with a sauce, go for it. Little rules started pulling themselves together. It was like realizing that all you have to do to "swim" is push the water down and backwards.

Now, I'm no fancy cook. I can't do anything à la anything, and I still can't determine how many people a recipe will feed. But I can cook well enough to eat decently well, and I know enough that I am not afraid of the whole institution anymore. Similarly, I don't know the difference between the butterfly stroke and the freestyle, and I'm pretty sure my "backstroke" is completely wrong except that I actually go backwards, but I can stay alive in water, and I can maneuver comfortably.

Moral of the story? If you don't know how, try it anyway; it's less scary than it sounds. Also, don't do it alone if you don't have to, just to make sure you don't drown or burn down your kitchen while you're still learning.

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