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Not Bread Yet

I am a decently good cook.

Except, of course, when I’m not. There was that one time when Laura and I decided that the boxed red beans and rice didn’t actually need to simmer for a whole 45 minutes like the instructions said, and we ended up crunching our way through uncooked rice and powdery beans. Messing up something as simple as boxed rice takes some talent, but boy, we were talented. We tried to cover up the horror of it with way too much Tony’s Creole seasoning; but Tony’s, while great on everything, does not actually count as a cure-all for kitchen sins.

And then there was the time I actually had to call 911 because my casserole magically transformed into a blazing inferno in my oven, which you guys already know about, so no need to go digging that one up again. (But you can click the link if you want to laugh at my misfortunes anyway.)

And I suppose there was also the time my first-trimester-nausea-ridden pregnant self bought a whole raw chicken with the guts and stuff still inside (and I really struggle with handling raw meat under the best of circumstances) and ended up dropping it several times and also somehow flinging raw chicken juice all over all of the walls and countertops… I don’t even know. It was bad.

…Aaaaaand the time I grabbed the cinnamon instead of the cumin and didn’t realize the mistake till I’d already stirred most of it into my homemade salsa. (Yum, Christmas salsa, right?) Naturally, I covered up that little mistake by adding like thrice the recommended amount of dried chipotle peppers, so yeah, now the salsa tasted like an angry Mexican Christmas monster that wants to set every nose hair you have on fire. Feliz Navidad, amigos!

Speaking of mixing up ingredients, how about that one time I somehow mixed up sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk? Do you know the difference? I do. Now. Sweetened condensed milk is a major ingredient in homemade ice cream. Which means it needs to be kept about a billion miles away from a cheesy onion potato casserole. *shudder*

And how could we forget the incident affectionately (?) known as the Death Hummus, which I’m still pretty sure wasn’t my fault. I didn’t have the recipe in front of me and I’d never made hummus before, so when Master Chef Cori handed me a bulb of garlic and said, “Can you do the garlic?” I got chopping. And chopping and chopping and chopping. And nobody stopped me. I chopped that whole dang bulb, which is like, fifteen to twenty cloves, no joke. Most recipes call for one to two, but Mediterranean food is known for being on the garlic-heavy side, so nothing seemed amiss to me. Nobody told to me that the recipe only called for SIX cloves. Not. Twenty. No, that was a detail I only figured out once the hummus was already blended and served and people were coughing and their eyes were watering and their sinuses were burning.

But hey, nobody got eaten by vampires that night, so who’s the real hero here? (Actually, I think one bite of that hummus would grant anyone lifetime immunity from vampires. You’re welcome, ingrates!) Vampires aside, the Death Hummus earned me a ban on my garlic privileges and a lifetime of chef-shaming. Literally every time I dared to cook after that, my roommate would materialize out of nowhere to remind me that “Garlic is a privilege, not a right!” Five years post-hummus, I still hear that mantra in my head every time I go for the garlic.

Other than all that, I am a decently good cook.

Nobody’s getting in line to come to dinner at my house now, are they?

Let me just say in my defense, I have been married for almost two years now, and my husband has not yet a.) starved, b.) been poisoned, c.) politely suggested I take remedial cooking classes. So I’ve got that going for me at least.

All joking aside, I’ve learned more life lessons in my kitchen than probably anywhere else. Humility, obviously. There’s just something about cooking that really teaches you how to graciously and humbly deal with your own mistakes. If you mess up art, you can paint over it. If you write a blog post full of typos, you can go in and edit them out and no one will ever know (not that I know that from experience or anything, heh heh.) But if you make major mistakes in cooking, there’s really no going back from that. Ever watched the Great British Baking Show? If you mess up, you mess up big, you mess up dramatically, and then you have to sit there and watch people literally eat your mistakes! (Or, you know, you call John and ask him to pretty please pick up takeout on the way home because dinner is on fire no don’t ask questions please.)

I’ve learned a bunch of other life lessons in my kitchen too. Time management, for one. Creativity (which if taken too far can quickly turn into a humility lesson; just ask my sister about “eggmeal.”) Precision, punctuality, persistence. Joy—so much joy! Satisfaction in a job well done. And maybe most importantly, patience.

Recently, I decided it was high time I learn how to make homemade bread. Which, after all I’ve told you about my kitchen misadventures, might seem like a bad idea. But I actually haven’t had any major bread disasters yet (knock on wood!) so don’t worry. And I can’t think of a better patience-building cooking project. Even the quickest of my yeast bread recipes takes a minimum of five hours. Time is as much an ingredient as flour and yeast. Without it, you don’t get bread.

One day, early in my breadmaking experiment, I took my tools over to my sister’s house and made a delicious honey whole wheat loaf to share with my nephews (quick aside—did you know you can use scoring tools to engrave a rocket ship on a loaf of bread? Well, you can, and it’s awesome!) I’d talked up the bread for days, and those little boys were so excited to try it. Everything was working well, and they were so into it. We kneaded that bread way more than was necessary just so we could keep playing with the sweet, squishy dough. But then I put it aside to rise.

“Um, Aunt Hannah,” said my five-year-old nephew in a droopy little voice, gazing at the covered bowl of dough about three minutes into its hour-and-a-half rise time. “I’m sad that it’s not bread yet.”

Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? In any project, any growth, there comes a moment where you just want to skip ahead to the good part. You’d rather go from never-cooked-in-your-life straight to Master Chef, without experiencing all the humiliating ingredient mixups and oven fires that may come in between. But real life isn’t like movies, where the nobody-from-nowhere protagonist goes through a two-minute training montage with some upbeat pump-up music and now suddenly we’re expected to believe he/she is prepared to take on the bad guy and save the world. (That’s a pet peeve of mine. And don’t give me that “but they’re the chosen one!” excuse either. It’s just lazy storytelling, friends.) No, in real life, the training montage takes way longer than minutes. You don’t just wake up one day and make up your mind to be good at something. It can take years. It can take a lifetime. And maybe you accidentally over-garlic some people along the way.

This whole work-in-progress theme has been on my mind a lot in the past few months. Recently on my Instagram (shameless plug, I run a writer account @hkayewrites and if you use Instagram you should look me up) I posted some excerpts from my very early writing notebooks, stories I wrote when I was 11 years old. The change is obvious when you compare those ragged pages to the book I wrote this year (another shameless plug: I wrote a book. Click here to learn more about it!) But what the side-by-side, then-and-now comparison doesn’t show is the years and years of in between. The work, the practice, the scrapped stories and false starts. The things I’m proud of and the pages I shredded. That all happened. It all took time. And it all contributed to where I am now. Am I a beautiful honey-gold loaf now? Not yet. But I’m working toward it.

Apologies for the bread-is-a-metaphor-for-life direction I’ve taken this. I’m kinda hungry right now.

In summary: as the hosts of my favorite podcast say so often, “You have to be willing to be bad at something in order to become good at it.” So do it, and be okay with your work-in-progress self! Whatever you want to be good at, start being bad at it now. Practice. Be persistent. And remember, time is an ingredient. Don’t be discouraged if your bread isn’t bread yet. Keep at it.

And please, for everyone’s sake, control your garlic.

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