Skip to content

The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Category Archives: Writing

The blog has really gotten away from me. I’m having trouble both finding time to write and figuring out what to write about.

It’s the middle and I hate the middle. One of my goals for grad school was to learn to get past the middle. I’m always excited at the beginning of a project. I can marshal fantastic energy to get something started. But then, when the dream of what I want to create runs into the reality of the faults with my creation, I have a horrible habit: I give up.

In order to prepare myself for my middle problem, I did something silly before grad school. I grew my hair out. It was about 2″ long and I wanted it to be almost to my elbows. When I was younger I had long, wild, curly hair. I thought maybe, for a woman starting over in middle age, it might be fun to recapture some of the spirit of my romantic youth. Growing my hair out required patience through long stretches of middle where I looked like – there is no other word for it – a soccer mom. Coming, as it did, in my mid-40’s it was painful. But I made it through, and now (with the help of some Clairol Natural Instincts #12) I have the hair of my youth.

But here’s what I’ve realized. Discipline is only 1/2 the battle. I have taught myself the discipline of sticking with a difficult project, of writing every day, of finishing a draft I’m struggling with. But creative discipline requires a flexibility to change the original idea to fit the reality of the outcome and I’m struggling with that in both my writing and the blog.

I’m afraid to stop posting every meal, every day, because I’m afraid if I give up on the original conception, I’ll lose the lesson of whatever it had to teach me. But I’m also afraid that if I’m unwilling to change the idea of the project I might be missing out in a different way.

I don’t know how to resolve the conflict. I also don’t know how to get this back to meatballs and spaghetti. Except to say that meatballs and spaghetti was one of the first meals that made me realize that I am more relaxed when I’m not using a recipe which was my first inkling that although I took pride in my Unnatural Cook status, it wasn’t necessarily serving me. I might, in fact, be happier as a Natural Cook. My suspicion is the thing that you don’t know you need to learn is more important than the thing you set out to learn. Which would mean that someday, I might have to be willing to be flexible and change my m.o. with the blog…..

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I should have known better than to plan a complicated(ish) meal like gazpacho and quesadillas on shopping day. That made no sense. Cooked the meatloaf and string beans instead. Also was critique night in which the thing I worked so hard on and is still so flawed was going to have its flaws discussed. Thus, the comfort food.

When I started school I told myself to make big mistakes. The kind that comes from taking big risks. Its so much easier to say that than to do that. When I handed the work in last Friday I felt so discouraged; but by Tuesday I was ready to hear what people had to say. Also much easier said than done. I still find it very difficult to translate critiques into forward motion. I think the critique confirmed what the strengths and the weaknesses of the piece were and I have a very crumpled idea of how to map out my next step but it is really, really difficult to get myself into the car. I wish getting critiqued was like filling an empty tank with gas, but it’s not. It’s more like taking your beloved old car to the shop to have the starter fixed and discovering the transmission is bad too. You fix it cause you need the car, but you really hate to do it and find yourself questioning if the damn car is really worth it in the first place.

Tags: , , , ,

Making the beans tonight and thinking about the corn avocado and mango salsa I was going to make up myself, got me thinking about memorizing. I basically know how to make the beans because I’ve memorized the steps. Lately I’ve begun trying to memorize recipes because it dawned on me when I memorize a recipe it teaches me not only how to make that dish, but how to cook. Memorization is a form of internalizing knowledge so that it becomes part of you in a way that you don’t really realize until, say, you go to grad school and someone points it out.

Last week in my literature seminar, the instructor was horrified to learn how few of us (myself absolutely included) had any prose at all memorized. When forced, I could come up only with the opening lines to Dante’s Inferno, in italian, which I misquoted horribly. The correct lines would have been: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, or, In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood. We won’t go into what I actually said, we will settle for the fact that it was a fitting two lines of poetry for a middle-aged woman feeling out of her depth.

But my instructor was not appeased. “What will you do if you’re thrown in jail?” he inquired of us with genuine concern. He was right. What would I do? But more importantly, how could any self-respecting grad student such as myself not have made it a point to internalize the very best of the language I purported to write in? And so he set us the task of memorizing an entire page of prose which is much harder than it sounds. Easier, were the two lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d wished I’d remembered in class: Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand / come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.

I am still working on the prose, the opening to Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch. “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread…” I am hooked now, on memorizing prose, hoping that it will do for me creatively on the page what memorizing recipes is doing for me creatively in the kitchen.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A last minute change to the meal plan because I didn’t go grocery shopping today; got sidetracked by a bad day of writing. The freezer was my friend. Pulled some leftover slow cooker pork out for sandwiches and made lemon coleslaw with red cabbage. I’ll try not to get too discouraged, in the words of the great Hoagey Carmichael, “Wish for a catch every day and you’re wasting a wish / For some days, there just ain’t no fish.”

Tags: , , ,

The pasta I made last night could not rightly be called carbonara because it had cream and because I browned the bacon and onions together for so long, that when I added the cream to the pan the sauce turned brown and looked more like stroganoff.

Every time I make this I tell myself I shouldn’t brown the bacon and onions at the same time because I can’t control the rate they cook at but then every time I just go ahead and put them in the same pan anyway to save myself the trouble of washing two pans. I can’t seem to break the habit. But since I got a rare complaint (read helpful suggestion) from my husband that next time I should brown the onions less (so they’d be less sweet) maybe I’ll finally change my ways.

I never really considered that the longer you sauté onions, the sweeter they get. I just always thought of browner as better. But sweet is not the right flavor for every dish. Once again, my cooking life seems to parallel my writing life. My husband gave me a neat little lesson in constructive criticism. Because he explained the relationship between cooking time and flavor I can use the information to improve my cooking instead of taking it personally. Cause that would just be silly.

Tags: , , , , ,

Making the Tortilla Soup tonight I followed the same technique I did last night: I read the recipe in advance to get the idea of the big picture and then only referred to it when I needed specific instructions. I noticed something interesting: the procedure for making the soup was very similar to the procedure for making the chicken indienne – brown the meat, sauté the vegetables, add the spices, add the liquid & seasonings, simmer. I’ve been cooking these dishes for years without ever noticing this.

I understand this is not an earth shattering observation. But it does confirm that the process of paying close attention while I cook in order to learn how to cook, is exactly the same thing that I’m doing at school by learning to “close read.” The close read theory is that by making simple observations of a text, a reader can learn to see how writers create prose. Close reading turns any book, essay, short story or poem into a teacher. The blog has become my “close read” of what’s in the pot. My kitchen is now a character in an ongoing dialogue about creativity.

I can already see, for example, how the discovery about the soup/indeinne will be helpful on the days I challenge myself to make up a recipe from ingredients I find at the store. With the technique in mind, I can experiment with vegetables, seasonings and flavorings and create my own dish. Thai coconut curry anyone? I can see it now: chicken, red peppers, green peppers, string beans, eggplant, cocoanut milk. Seasonings? I have no idea; I’ll have to look that up. But I do know how to make it: brown the chicken, sauté the vegetables, add the cocoanut milk, simmer. Nothing Unnatural about that, baby.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Last night I accidentally cooked Zatar Chicken Kebabs for a vegetarian, but luckily, I served it with greek salad so she did not go home hungry.

My salad eating friend was kind enough to trade food for babysitting and my husband and I went to the movies –  a documentary about Gerhardt Richter. I was curious to see the famous painter at work – something told me there would be a lesson for a writer in it. I was not disappointed.

Richter makes his paintings in stages. Working on two huge canvases at once he first uses a brush to cover them with large swaths of color. Then, the seventy-nine year old gentleman takes a squeegee as tall as he is and covers his creation from top to bottom, burying most of what lies underneath. He does this over and over, changing colors, changing directions, changing his pace, his angle, using his full body weight to obliterate and create, obliterate and create over and over again. It was like watching somebody dance a painting into existence.

Richter had the confidence to let each layer disappear, knowing it could never be recreated. Destruction is part of creation. Change an trust are essential components of art making. I will tack the postcard of his giant white canvas above my desk to remind myself not to be afraid to attack what I’ve already created until it can get no better.

Tags: , , , , , , ,