Ten years ago, about this time of the year, I experienced a big reality check when I called Caroline, my sister-in-law, to confirm our holiday plans with my husband’s family for our Thanksgiving dinner.
“What would you like me to bring?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she replied.
I was a little surprised. “No, really, it’s no trouble. Would you like me to cook a side dish? A dessert? I don’t mind.”
“No, really,” Caroline responded, “Don’t bring anything. We’ll take care of all of it.”
Now, to give a little context here, Caroline and her partner Sandy were (and still are) very good cooks, and they knew exactly what they were doing when it came to a five-course Thanksgiving feast. By contrast, I was not a good cook at all.
Or maybe I should say that I was not a cook at all, since I never really learned (no fault but my own). At that time, I defined “home-cooked meal” as Tuna Helper with a side of canned green beans, and my encounters with fresh produce extended to a weekly bag-o-salad and a tomato to go on top. My husband Erik and I were both working hard; he was commuting into the city and would get home late every night (usually around 9:30). I always had studying or writing to do for my grad school courses and couldn’t afford to spend two hours on making a dinner that I’d be eating alone. We got a lot of take-out, pizza and Chinese food. Leftovers night was usually reheats from the restaurants.
So when I had that Thanksgiving meal planning conversation with Caroline, it didn’t come as a surprise that she was letting me off the hook for dinner. But it was a wake-up call, and my almost nonexistent cook-ego was a little bruised.
Anyway, that Thanksgiving I decided to crash the menu (so to speak) by bringing a dessert, and I wanted to redeem my reputation by making something really impressive. I went and found this really yummy-sounding recipe for a pumpkin swirl cheesecake. It was complicated for me at the time, but I braved the unknown, buying my first jars of allspice and ground nutmeg and crushing pecans and ginger snaps for the crust. I learned as I went along. It came out fantastic, and I was so, so proud to bring it to the table that year. I basked in the compliments, with my fragile emergent cook-ego buoyed for a long time to come. And I have made that pumpkin swirl cheesecake recipe for every Thanksgiving meal thereafter.
Since then I’ve kind of taught myself to cook—not a gourmet, yet, but I can deglaze a pan with the best of them. It’s funny, but even now, I am still as proud as can be when I master a new recipe. Just this week I tried making vegetarian chili for the first time, and I made a newbie mistake when I got to the end of the recipe and found that I didn’t have chili powder or cumin to finish it off. (Lucky for me, in my neighborhood I am surrounded by all kinds of domestic goddesses and amazing chefs. A quick call to my neighbor Robin saved the day.) Erik, who rarely praises my vegetarian versions of meat recipes, said it was “really good.” Even now I am still quietly congratulating myself on making an awesome pot of chili, patting my silly little cook-ego on the back.
I’m happy because each success gives me the courage to be a little braver, to try something a little more challenging. It’s addictive; nowadays I read more cookbooks than novels. I’m planning to surprise my family this weekend with two new recipes I’ve been excited about trying: Eggplant Rollatini and Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones.
Now whether my picky kids will actually *eat* the eggplant recipe is another question (although I’m hoping to have better results with the pumpkin scones). I may be in for another reality check. Nowadays my chef-ego can handle it, though.