I have a phobia about cooking, Any and all cooking coming from my own two hands. I just know from the moment I start pulling down pots and pans it’s going to turn out TERRIBLE. It’s going to SUCK. It’s going to taste like crap, the people I serve it to are going to get sick. People are going to give me a look that says, “You’re kidding, right?” So why do I write a food blog? Why am I writing right this very minute about appetizer anxiety? Because lately I have found two cures for my food fear. Two REAL cures that appear to be ridding me of a life-long phobia I have about cooking. Two cures that once I realized were there, seemed so very simple.
I’ve always had this fear. Creating a meal gets my heart racing, my hands clammy. The very thought of bringing out the chopping board fills me with a dread much like getting a root canal. Don’t even get me started about planning full-0n dinner parties, or barbecues or Thanksgiving get-togethers. I’ve had full blown anxiety attacks from even opening my old cookbooks to look for recipes. The act of even LOOKING at an ingredient list for Herb Stuffing gives me stomach cramps because even though it looks scrumptious on the page, I know it’s going to taste like cat litter.
Last Christmas was supposed to be a simple affair – a small brunch with just my husband, my sister, her boys, and my Dad. All I had to do was make some eggs and make sure the house was clean. Hubby was even available to help. But two hours before they were scheduled to arrive I was crumpled on my bathroom floor, paralyzed with anxiety and stomach cramps. They arrived to find me in my bathrobe, prone on the couch. I feigned flu – and I guess it wasn’t all feigning. I really was sick. All because I had to cook.
What am I so afraid of? Failure obviously. But why? One reason is my mother. I always preface stories about her with the phrase, “She was Martha Stewart before there was one,” or “She made Julia Child look like a rank amateur.” Because she did. Growing up in the 1950’s, and MAJORING IN HOME ECONOMICS (yes, you heard right) at Longwood College gave her a step up onto the Betty Draper platform of housewifery. Yep, she had to major in Home Economics to land a husband (instead of Art, her first choice), because everyone knows a woman can’t make a living as a painter. So cooking was her art which she practiced almost as much as her painting. Tuesday night dinners were exotic affairs often served by candlelight (for mood), and much to the chagrin of my Dad, who always complained he could never see his food.
She experimented with Hawaiian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Indian when all you could buy at your local A&P was LaChoy (“Makes Chinese food……..SWING American! Think of it!). Pretty exotic stuff in the early to mid 70’s. When your Mom is making Baked Alaska from scratch on a Thursday night and the rest of your friends are eating Nilla wafers for dessert you sort of get ingrained in your head that you just MIGHT be set to a higher standard.
I tried. She pulled me into the kitchen, showing me the basics like greasing and flouring a pan, or cutting a carrot for your mise en place. But Mom always saved the fancy stuff for herself, like arranging the whipped egg white on the mound of mint chocolate chip ice cream (with a brownie base) for the Baked Alaska. So maybe I got it in my head that I was never good enough. I could never BE good enough. When she arranged the 12 different kinds of made-from-scratch cookies on her cookie tree – I could eat them (when she said so). But could never ARRANGE them. That was her job.
From all this I learned dinner parties were EVENTS. The lighting, the music (usually Sinatra), the food, the linens, all of it was so important. One detail left out could ruin an entire month’s preparation. It’s no wonder I become apoplectic at Thanksgiving! I can remember freaking out the first time Hubby and I presented Thanksgiving to my in-laws. I had forgotten to buy potato rolls, and of course, EVERYONE knows it cannot be perfect Thanksgiving without potato rolls! Hubby tried to help, but I was inconsolable. Dinner was ruined.
When I spent weeks planning a Tex-Mex barbecue, buying multicolored pitchers to serve sangria, festive tablecloths, tumblers, party bowls, and then TWO people showed up I freaked out. I was a failure, a waste. Why did I even bother? No one likes me that’s why they didn’t come. They knew the food would suck and it probably did anyway.
As you can probably tell, the other reason for my cooking fear is I have some sort of sick notion if the meal isn’t good, my character isn’t good. A failure in cooking is a reflection of my very self. Yeah pretty messed up, but that’s my head. I can’t help it. At least I’m AWARE of it, right?
I wasn’t always like this. For many years I was single, and out of pure boredom I would cook. I loved scones and so decided to learn to make them. If they didn’t turn out, that’s okay, I’ll just feed them to the birds. Got bored by prepared processed meals which tasted like cardboard and so learned to make simple pasta sauce. From there I started improvising – cooking the pasta and mixing it with different things depending on my mood – pesto one night, sauteed vegetables (Provencale style) another night. Just plain with garlic and feta a third night. I ate a lot of pasta – because it was easy to make, forgiving if it turned out wrong. And if it turned out wrong the only person seeing it was me. Eventually got so adventurous I was making curries – first from a recipe, but then eventually improvising on my own. Buying fish sauce and making authentic Vietnamese shrimp and chicken soup was a Sunday afternoon adventure – a way to kill time and entertain myself when I wasn’t dating anyone. No stress, no anxiety. If it didn’t turn out, I’d just dump it and make some mac and cheese. Try again next weekend.
So what happened? Somewhere along the way I got married – to a guy who cooks WAY WAY WAY better than me. So of course I transferred my Mom thing onto him. Poor Hubby. Without even knowing it, he had become the object of all my childhood “not good enoughs.” Somehow I got into my subconscious I had to prove my cook-worthiness (and self worth) to Hubby, just as I had to do with my mother. Being successful at Thanksgiving would prove this. Creating a magical Tuesday night dinner would also. The anxiety was crippling, but I didn’t know where it was coming from. Poor Hubby. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything to make me think this sort of thing was expected of me. He loves to cook and will do so at the drop of a hat! And he’d love me even if I couldn’t boil water.
Realizing all this was coming from my own twisted experience was liberating. A huge weight just lifted right off. Sure, you have that first moment of, “Oh my GAWD, I can’t believe my subconscious is doing this,” but once again, when you’re aware, you can fix it. Or at least try. So what did I do? Simple. I just pretended I was single again.
Every time I cooked, I pretended Hubby wasn’t in the picture. I pretended the only person who would be eating this meal would be me. So if it was a failure, it was okay. I could just throw it away and eat mac and cheese. Just me. And you know what? It worked. By tricking my mind, my soul calmed down. My anxiety eased. Not all at once, but in steps. And every time I cooked, it got just a little better. Baby steps. But better each time.
Having a CSA was the other cure that helped baby-step it along. When you’ve got 16 tomatoes just on this side of too ripe and might be covered in mold tomorrow – you HAVE to figure out something to do with them real quick. Pasta sauce? Ratatouille? It forces your mind into creative cooking real fast like a smoke alarm runs you out of a burning house. Tomatoes. Rotting. Must. Cook. NOW!
Eventually all this forced creativity got me into small acts of regular food improvisation. I could look at a recipe and think, “That would taste better with a little acid, like lime juice,” or “That cobbler would be WAY better with pumpkin spice instead of just cinnamon.” And it was. Another baby step of confidence. Stepping away from all that fear.
Recently I’ve discovered not only am I as good a cook as my mother was – in some respects I am better. When I pull a homemade peach cobbler out of the oven that looks like it should grace the cover of Gourmet magazine, I still pick apart its flaws. I’m still way too hypercritical. But inside, deep, deep inside, I’m thinking, “You know, Mom never made cobbler.” She BOUGHT plenty of pies, maybe even made refrigerator pies, but never a true, homemade peach cobbler. One that looks great, and I admit with much reluctance, tastes incredible. Credit goes to the CSA peaches, but also to my willingness to take a recipe and tweak it without fear. To actually NOT follow it to the letter, is a pretty big step. And to not sink into a heap of anxiety on the floor is leaps and bounds beyond anything I ever thought possible…