A timid child, I cried at damn near everything. Couldn’t get the combination in dance class? I cried. Someone made a harmless joke? I cried. I was frustrated easily and fragile beyond help. I was insecure and sheepish for years. That girl is long gone now, but the lingering effects held on in one facet of my life: my cooking. I loved cooking and baking, but I yearned for perfection every time. There were never burnt edges or crispy bits on any of my baked goods or meals, but that resulted in undercooking nearly everything. Setting timers for the minimum cooking time and being the most pesky oven checker were my culinary downfalls. I craved perfection so tenaciously that my efforts had the opposite effect entirely.
Early in my college career my love for food manifested itself into my academics. In my journalism classes I squeezed food into every assignment I could, from political assignments to longform creative pieces. I attempted to become that modern urban farmgirl who cooked squash and overnight oats and blogged about it. I was passionate about local honey and became evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. I had ancient grains coming out of my ears. I needed to have my quirky side and excel at something niche. I snagged an internship with a local food publication and became a published food writer. And yet, each time I roasted a vegetable I couldn’t keep my hands off the oven handle. I hauled squash from the farmers market to class only to bring it home and woefully under season or undercook it for the sake of not making a mistake. I was the girl watching the pot boil. I would peek into the door and feel the warm dry heat on my face, look at the slight color on whatever was cooking, and take it out prematurely. I would take food out of the oven, plate the dish and realize it was undercooked after slicing into it, after which I would throw it in the microwave and nuke the crap out of it, making up for lost time.
My desire to achieve perfection overshadowed my research and knowledge. The hours I spent reading Bon Appetit and Food52 were wasted because my internal monologue inserted itself into the narrative. I knew that color equaled flavor. I knew that salt was essential to all recipes and despite knowing those facts and more, my food was timid and colorless. I was a people pleaser down to my core, and while then I would never admit it, now I see how desperate I was to be an image of perfection through and through. I can definitely attribute that (and probably any aforementioned insecurities) to some form of anxiety. I would bring baked goods to family gatherings and sit anxiously as everyone cut into my acceptably cooked and seasoned pie, knowing that I could have cooked the crust longer or added spices other than cinnamon to the filling. I was obsessed with following a recipe and not deviating from that, fearing that a freestyle move might cost me my reputation. I made beautiful looking olive oil cakes that could have used extra time in the oven, or more lemon zest than the recipe required. While everyone loves the gooey, undercooked section of the brownie pan, everyone also likes the crispy edges. My insecurities revealed themselves in my inability to deliver both.
In any communal living situation and even when I would cook with my boyfriend, my sheepishness returned. Too nervous to make a mistake, I would either wait until the coast was clear and the kitchen was empty, or ask him (or whoever else I was cooking with) to do many of the things I knew I could do but just felt unsure about in the moment. Everyone’s a critic and for some reason, despite being the most amateur of amateurs, I was afraid my knife skills, or some other trivial aspect of my cooking, would insight mocks and giggles.
I’m now 22 and living alone. In my castle (this one bedroom apartment), I am the queen and I’m cooking for me and only me. It’s now that I’m getting dare I say edgy about cooking. I’m taking risks with flavors because who but me am I aiming to please? In the most cynical of ways, I didn’t care about disappointing myself. And yet, that’s how I achieved perfection, or what tasted like it. I love cooking onions until they stick to the pan and take on caramel sweetness. I love hearing sausages sizzle in the pan and take on crispy brown sides. I like seeing the edges of my fried egg become crispy and lacy from the heat. I season haphazardly knowing that no one around me can tell me something is too spicy. I don’t measure my spices with a spoon, but I feel the granules leave my palm as I just toss. I’m the queen of the kitchen sink, sometimes throwing whatever I have in my fridge together and wishing for the best while I let it simmer, bubble, or bake.
Taking control of my kitchen and eating food that I enjoyed unapologetically was a sign of adulthood. I realized that I actually like kale, provided it was smothered in olive oil and roasted into crisps. Deciding what to eat, when to eat it, and most importantly how to eat it seems menial but the creativity thrills me. You know you’re a real adult when dinner’s uncertain outcome becomes exciting. Cooking for myself, I feel shameless in my choices. I can eat spicy potatoes whenever I want, or breakfast for dinner on a Tuesday.
And mistakes? I don’t know her. In the words of Bob Ross, “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” Rarely does a silly mistake warrant an unsalvageable meal. Sometimes you just need to think it over and find a way to repurpose or rectify without retrograding and crying over a burnt pan sauce.
In this journey through burnt edges and sloppy sautés I’ve learned more about my heart than I’ve learned about cooking: there’s more to life than perfection, and if you’re a people pleaser make sure you don’t leave yourself out of the equation.