Learning to cook

I’m a math geek. I like numbers, precision, the rigor of constructing a proof that follows a set of internally consistent principles to arrive at an indisputable answer. I like right answers. More than that, I like knowing that a right answer exists, and that it is possible for me to find it.

I’m a high-stress kind of girl. I take everything seriously. I’m a control freak and a perfectionist; when my Shabbat dinner Friday night expanded from 6 people to 8 on the walk home from shul, when I got to my apartment with my guests, I insisted that everyone else sit down in the living room and stay out of my way, so I could expand and re-set the table according to my specifications without anyone’s “help.”

I love to bake. Baking requires a recipe with precise interactions between ingredients. You need this much baking powder; too little and your cake won’t rise, too much and it’ll rise too fast and collapse.

Cooking, though, has never come easily to me. I cook the way I bake — following a recipe precisely. If it says “1/2 teaspoon,” I use half a teaspoon, not a milligram more or less. If my Mom makes a dish that sounds good, I’ll ask for a recipe. She’ll freely admit that she doesn’t measure the quantities, but she’ll quanitfy things for me — and even knowing that they’re approximations, I will follow them to the letter.

But over the past few years, I have been slowly learning to relax. And I have been learning to enjoy cooking. I’m finally beginning to understand that if I don’t feel like buying, washing, and chopping green onions, I can just use some onion powder, and the recipe will work just fine. I’m catching on that if I don’t have X, but I do have Y which is somewhat similar or vaguely related, I can probably substitute Y for X and, again, the recipe will work just fine. (Yes, there’s my math geek side again.)

And if a recipe doesn’t work — whether it’s because I messed up a step, or because my substition didn’t work, or because my oven’s running hot or cold — I am beginning to realize that it’s not the end of the world. People don’t judge me based on the quality of food that I prepare. And, as my Mom pointed out to me recently, perception is mostly based on expectation. If I tell my guests, “This is a new recipe, and I think I screwed it up, and I’m pretty sure I overcooked it,” people will probably agree that it tastes somewhat overdone. But if I say, “This is a new recipe, and I’m really excited about it — the kitchen smelled divine while it was cooking,” my guests will probably think that however it tastes is exactly how it’s meant to taste, and they’ll be impressed. And if I don’t say anything at all, people will probably presume that the food is just fine, and it will, in fact, taste just fine to them.

It is very, very hard for me to accept that not everything I do has to be absolutely perfect. It is an enormous challenge to realize that I would probably be happier if I were just a bit less demanding of myself. I tend to forget about my accomplishments, but I hold onto my failures. And I take on failures that aren’t mine at all. My instinct was to see the end of my engagement as a failure on my part. Although I knew intellectually that it wasn’t my fault, it took a good few months before I really believed that, despite what my ex said, it wasn’t my fault — I hadn’t changed, I hadn’t pushed him away, and in fact I did everything I could to save the relationship. It just took me a while to understand that he didn’t want the relationship to be saved.

If something goes right, I chalk it up to luck. If something goes wrong, I assume it’s my fault. And if it’s my fault, it must be because I screwed up — because I wasn’t perfect. That was my thought process for a very, very long time. But at last I can see, and begin to believe, that “perfection” is in the eye of the beholder. If I inadvertently change a recipe, I don’t have to consider it a failure or a mistake; maybe I just created a new variation which is every bit as good as the original. And if something does go wrong, I don’t always have to take the blame. Sometimes, yes, a mistake is my fault. But it’s not always my fault. And one mistake doesn’t make me a failure. And maybe allowing myself to be imperfect is a new kind of success.

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2 Responses to Learning to cook

  1. Stacey says:

    I had to sort of giggle when I read this, not because this is funny, but because we are so similar, Little Sis. I swear, I could have written this. From the math to the cooking to the baking, to the perfectionist tendencies — to chalking good things to luck and bad things to my fault. I know we are too hard on ourselves. I will tell you, thought, that at 38, the older I’ve gotten the more relaxed I’ve gotten about all of this kind of stuff (slowly, but surely).

  2. Beth says:

    Yay!

    I’m glad you’re learning to relax and let go of mistakes! Perfection is boring and overrated.

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