Cooking has made me a much bigger person (take that however you want.) Or to put it another way, everything I need to know about life I learned in my kitchen. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:
Patience. I grew up in Texas where everything is "chicken fried”, a method that involves dredging something in flour, then dipping it in milk and back through the flour again, before placing it into hot grease in a cast iron skillet. You brown it completely on one side before turning it over – and this is where patience comes in. Tempting as it is to jimmy the meat around, if you mess with it before it has a chance to get completely brown, your "crust” will stick to the skillet. You have to leave it alone instead. The same is true about relationships. Your daughter has a fight with her best friend, and your first reflex is to jump in and "fix” it, which just makes things worse. Next time, try chicken-frying it – or rather leaving it alone. In most cases the problem will resolve itself.
Practice. My first pie crust was a disaster. The dough was crumbly so I added water, which made it tough, and the more I reworked it, the tougher it got. I rolled it out too thin and it stuck to the counter. I stretched it, and it shrank back in the oven. But I kept at it, and three decades later I would challenge Martha Stewart to produce a pastry as light and flaky as mine. Now, if only I could claim that kind of success in my repeated efforts to hold my tongue. Alas, that one’s still a work in progress – without much progress.
Preparation. Admittedly I’m not as skilled with a wok as my brother-in-law, Walt, but I do know this: stir-frying takes just a minute or two. Ergo, you’d better have your ingredients all chopped and ready, your rice cooked, the table set, and your diners gathered before you crank up the heat. Waiting until the garlic is sizzling in hot peanut oil is no time to dash to Wal-Mart for more soy sauce. By the same token, waiting until you find yourself stuck overnight in a cheap hotel because an unexpected flight delay caused you to miss your connection home is no time to discover that you’re wearing your very last pair of clean underwear.
Procrastination. Did you know that if you leave maple syrup on a plate for several hours after breakfast, it turns to epoxy that has to be chiseled off with a putty knife, whereas if you rinse that same plate right after the meal, the syrup comes off in two seconds? The same principle applies to weeding a flower bed, or apologizing to your sister for a catty remark you made about her new haircut. The longer you put it off, the harder it is to do.
Perseverance. Country gravy is not a good thing to judge right in the middle of the process. All the ingredients are there – the meat drippings and "cracklin’s", the flour, and the milk – but it looks like gunky, dirty dishwater. Just keep stirring. Eventually it’ll all pull together into the creamiest, smoothest concoction you’ve ever poured over a buttermilk biscuit! Similarly, a young teenager is not a good thing to judge in the middle of the process either. Just keep parenting. Eventually he’ll pull together too.
Potential. You see brown bananas. I see banana muffins. You see stale bread. I see breadcrumbs for a meatloaf. You see overripe strawberries. I see a smoothie. You see a piece of chocolate cake. WHERE?!?!?
Perfection. It’s what makes me cut out tiny pastry leaves to decorate my pie crust. It’s what makes me place cherry tomato halves around the edge of my quiche. It’s what makes me top my twice-baked potatoes with neat little x’s made from thin strips of Velveeta. It’s what makes me crazy. It’s also what makes me extremely proud to serve all of the above to my dinner guests.
Well, I guess that’s about it. Oh wait. There is one more, and it applies to any situation – whether you’ve just dropped your Mom’s 75th birthday cake on the floor right before her big party, or you’re sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for the results of a scary mammogram. I’m referring of course to Prayer and in my humble opinion no kitchen – or life – should ever be without it.