Have you ever been proud of a steamed carrot? I have. Last week, as I handed one to my 9-month-old baby, I felt a warmth, a glow of pride.
I did that, I thought. I steamed that carrot.
Cooking scared me. For years, I followed the example my mother had set in the kitchen, being too busy with work to worry much about food. Why bother slaving away when there was a ready-made pasta sauce, done in minutes?
My rare attempts at more than heating food only confirmed my suspicions that cooking wasn’t for me. A neurotic effort to make mashed potatoes -- When are the potatoes boiled? Are they done yet? How about now? — resulted in a plate of what looked like scrambled eggs, with none of the flavor.
...cooking was very much like exercise: something that looked great and rewarding when other people did it, but felt stressful and nauseating when I gave it a go.
A brief college love affair with making spaghetti alla bolognese ended abruptly with a bout of diarrhea. Years later, a dish called "lentil surprise" failed to impress my husband when the surprise turned out to be stones.
All of those experiences left me feeling that cooking was very much like exercise: something that looked great and rewarding when other people did it, but felt stressful and nauseating when I gave it a go.
Then I left my job as a teacher and moved, pregnant, from the U.K. to Boston for my husband’s job. I was no longer too busy for anything. Indeed, for the first few months, I felt as if I were no longer anything. All the hooks of my previous identity — job, friends, location — were gone. In their absence, I flirted with cooking again. Might this be part of the new me?
At the start, the answer appeared to be a resounding no. My anxiety built. How fine is "finely" chopped? How much salt is a pinch? Are those onions browned? A bit longer… a bit longer… Surely it’s not meant to look like that?
Placing the finished product in front of my husband, I would watch his every bite; if he said nothing, I was disheartened. If he said something, it was the wrong thing.
Meanwhile, pregnancy hormones and my mild identity crisis meant that our attempts to cook together posed a danger to our marriage. “Can I just show you how I’d chop the garlic?” my husband might venture, bravely moving to take the knife out of my hand as tears of inadequacy sprang up in my eyes, and irrational hatred surged through me. Watching him in resentful silence, I vowed never, ever to chop garlic that way. Once again the kitchen had defeated me.
What changed things, as it changed everything, was the birth of our daughter.
Breastfeeding made me hungry all the time, and, much more so than in pregnancy, I craved. Specifically, I craved desserts. At a month old, my daughter was diagnosed with a dairy intolerance, which meant that, as her food source, I could no longer eat dairy. Did you know that dairy is in practically everything? I didn’t, but it is, especially in desserts. If I wanted cake, which I very much did, I would have to make my dairy-free own. For the first time, I was forced to persevere in the kitchen -- I could either get on with it, or go without.
I found the restrictions of this sugar- and dairy-free type of cooking enormously liberating -- it’s so healthy, nobody expects it to taste any good.
My initial attempts were predictably disastrous. My first cake tasted and smelled of out-of-date eggs; an improvisation with banana bread ingredients produced something more closely resembling marzipan- flavored semolina pudding. But I found myself learning. I learned, for instance, that almond paste is not an acceptable substitute for ground almonds. I learned also that there’s a reason we’re advised not to eat too much cake -- it's essentially just sugar and fat. When I couldn’t stop eating a Victoria sponge I had made despite the cloying margarine it left coating my tongue, I realized that I needed to do something.
That is when, with the help of recipes I found online, I began steaming vegetables and baking brownies made sweet with sweet potato and pastry made rich with dates and almonds. I started using a food processor. I branched out from sweets and made my own pesto. To my surprise, I found the restrictions of this sugar- and dairy-free type of cooking enormously liberating -- it’s so healthy, nobody expects it to taste any good.
I am still only just a passable cook, and when I return to work, when life shifts again, I know that I will cut corners to make things easier. But it feels good no longer to be afraid in the kitchen. It feels good to know that, if called upon to do so, I can confidently and without fuss steam a carrot.