I’m not a recreational cook. I prepare food to eat it, though I discovered that I enjoy a simple cooking process or also putting together a meal with my family or a group of friends. While the end goal is always to eat, for anyone, with time I’ve grown into my own understanding of the special moments of eating and cooking together.
My mother comes from a family with lengthy branches of extended relatives on either side, with multiple family units, and she inherited the gift for efficiently prepared and delicious meals. Not to mention sharing this gift again and again, to this day, with her own big family. Scheduling, time-saving measures, a fair amount of multi-tasking among mothers and grandmothers, gatherings around a kitchen table that would inevitably lead the way to jokes and stories that were passed on in the future – all this, together with and around the process of cooking, contributed to the fundamental base of home and family. Many of those mothers, grandmothers and aunts also developed their own recipes.
My father, being a scientist with an eye for taking things apart and seeing how individual components relate to each other to create a whole, is adept at following a complicated recipe that might involve several hours of labour. It was a treat when he had time to do this and I remember how, as children, we were entranced by one dish where the pieces of spiced meat were carefully wrapped up in foil (so shiny) and stuck in the oven. He was also always willing to lend his strength (and patience) to mixing or rolling out dough to the necessary thinness, also for layers that had to be put in the freezer first – my sister and I were very keen on puff pastry for a while.
Baking stands out to me because of childhood memories of spending time with my mother and, of course, knowing that I would get a treat. I remember my sense of importance when we were allowed to shape dough into anything we liked or use cookie cutters. My mother would regularly bake in the evenings as well for the week ahead. When we were older, sometimes we would come to the kitchen after already having gone to bed, drawn in by the aroma of baking cinnamon buns.
My sisters are both good at understanding more intricate baking recipes and proceed with focused confidence once they start. There was a Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1980s in our house that had amazing photographs. My sister and I spent a large share of our early teens trying out various recipes and sitting in front of the oven, watching a cake take shape.
I’ve come back to baking at home this year, after I realized I missed it. Tonight’s cake didn’t turn out like expected, namely it crumbles easily, but it’s still perfectly edible, and thanks to the chocolate frosting (which turned out amazing) the apartment smells lovely.
Now, I hate painting, based on the one and only time I did it after shamelessly procrastinating. But if I were to do it, this could tempt me.
Author Meredith McCardle painted the first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on her wall in three weeks. There is something about the sheer purity and the simultaneous richness of words on a white page that is accessible as an art object, especially if it’s words from a beloved book that still makes your skin tingle.
Speaking as a fellow Harry Potter fan, great choice of wall coverage! Glancing over at my own shelves, I confess I would take a page out of the same book (pun!) My own choice would possibly be the passage describing Harry finally casting his first, real Patronus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “And then it hit him – he understood. He hadn’t seen his father – he had seen himself –
Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.
“EXPECTO PATRONUM!” he yelled.
And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal.”
The memories make me tear up. Another choice would be Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice, which I feel I can open at any page. Actually, I just opened it at Mr. Collins’ proposal to Lizzy – no, not for my wall. How about this: “They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects.”
Ray Bradbury’s special prose from The Halloween Tree is also a good idea for some word painting: “And Ghost and Mummy and Skeleton and Witch and all the rest were back at their own homes, on their own porches, and each turned to look at the town and remember this special night they would never in all their lives ever forget and they looked across the town at one another’s porches but especially on and over across the ravine to that great House where at the very top Mr. Moundshroud stood on his spike-railinged roof.”
I’m so lucky that the works I’ve quoted here so far also have great film adaptations to underline their brilliance. How about playing an audiobook or the movie in the background as you paint?
I am very tempted. Very.
Let’s hope you don’t. But if you do, here are some tips that might make the experience a bit less traumatic.
Consciously look for locksmith shops when walking around your neighborhood. Memorise those within walking distance, save the number in your phone, or even pin the location on your phone if you know how (I don’t) – whatever works. Shops that have the encouraging “24 hours” sign in their windows are a particularly good idea. Yes, paying for what might turn out to be a few seconds of opening your door will hurt, but sometimes it’s your only option.
Even if you are stepping out “just for a second” to set out the trash and there’s someone else home, ALWAYS take your key with you. A friend of a friend told me she developed a reflex of patting her pocket to feel for her keys before leaving her apartment to go to her building’s laundry room.
Ditto on the key if you have a door that swings shut easily.
Triple ditto if you’re wearing something “just to nip out for a sec” that you’re positive no one else will ever see you in (except Sheldon).
We don’t always see or really know our neighbors, but do say hello if you cross paths and have an idea who’s bell it’s OK to ring. Maybe the nice couple who’ve signed for your packages or the grandmother and granddaughter duo you run in to most Sunday mornings. A bit of advance choosing will make the tremulous statement “I’m afraid I’ve locked myself out” easier. Especially if you’re already feeling vulnerable due to having extra fluffy bunny-shaped slippers on (see above).
Try to keep your phone on you when you go out, though obviously sometimes we all forget or it doesn’t make sense to take it with you if you’re only popping out to the bakery around the corner. In which case you will have to ask your neighbors to please use their phone or help you look up a locksmith if you don’t remember the number or location.
Pick a trusted friend or relative in the vicinity to keep your spare key. If you’ll have your phone on you in the event you do get locked out, you can call them. Hopefully they won’t be out of town. If you don’t have your phone on you or the number of the key keeper memorized, the knowledge that somewhere out there your spare key is safe might still be comforting.
If you do get locked out, try to do so at an hour when it’s still OK to knock on people’s doors or call them. If the hour is not of such a nature, breathe through your nose and get creative.
Know which of your family members and friends has mechanical skills, especially if they are within reach.
Basically, try not to get locked out. Good luck!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that most of us have to cook. Whether boiling an egg or making toast, or whipping up a birthday cake to ensure you get asked to bake cakes for the rest of your life. Cooking is unavoidable. Even for those of us who may have tried.
Rewind a few years back and I was standing in my student dorm kitchen, pouring boiling water in to a big mug filled with powder from a packet promising soup. A few energetic stirs with a spoon, et voila. This was a good solution for nights when the kitchen was too crowded for “real” cooking or when one had to study for exams. Not to mention it was easy on a student budget. Later I got to know a girl who studied nutritional science. When I asked her what was actually in those “soups”, she rolled her eyes and said I didn’t want to know.
I kind of thought so all by myself, but hearing this from someone who actually dealt with food put things in a different perspective.
I switched to canned soup.
Gone are the days. Of course I didn’t exist solely on powdered products that resembled food once you poured boiling water on them, even if the kettle was my big friend. But I had gotten in to the habit of easier cooking and sometimes the choices were based on convenience due to circumstances, rather than creativity.
Once I got my own kitchen to spread out in, I discovered that I was a bit of what’s mentioned in the title of this piece, a subject I also partly addressed in my previous post about hosting a dinner party at home. I felt anxious about cooking. So what is an anxious cook to do? Well:
Don’t stop trying new things when you actually really want to
I felt even more anxious when the blueberry loaf I wanted to bake came out runny and flat from the oven. This actually led to months of not baking. Wrong action! I had wanted to continue baking, but I was a deflated by the setback. After the initial trauma and neurotic reactions you can bake a few simple things to get a good idea of how your oven works and whether you might need to change a product you use. If you do have to throw something away, breathe through your nose a few times and try again. Obviously this example translates to other types of cooking, not just baking.
Work around and polish the skills you have
We don’t always stop to think about the sometimes basic, but useful things we do in the kitchen that we are good at. A friend of mine is adept at cutting vegetables in to thin, even strips, so he worked on it with those that needed some practicing, like potatoes. He usually fries everything he slices, and after a while he started including finely sliced meat with his dishes. It became a specialty of his and I discovered there were lots of recipes and ideas for cooking around this particular skill. It didn’t have to be hard, it just needed to stay enjoyable. If you’re good at tossing salads, you already know there’s a billion ways to keep that going. It also means you might be good at mixing things in general and probably have an eye for making food look attractive.
Bottom line: you can cook!
Also: recipes, cookbooks and food blogs were put on this planet to make life easier. Find authors and sources that appeal to you.
As a kid I’m guessing you couldn’t wait to get your hands in to that dough (even if for reasons not related to cooking), shell peas or help to carefully spoon cream on your favourite pastries?
Find that kid!
If all else fails, two options remain. You can do this:
Images: The Keep Calm-O-Matic
If it’s not planned as an evening that is supposed to put those party scenes in the last The Great Gatsby movie to shame, there is really nothing to worry about.
For this post I was thinking about something with more of a salon flair in a rented cosy space many of us find ourselves in these days.
These are the questions I’ve come up against most often and the (hopefully soothing) tips to put them to rest.
What if the guests won’t like it?
Since the people you invited responded to your invitation, this means they want to come. The fact that they want to come means they are looking forward to spending time with you and having you as a host. Assuming that your invitees are also nice, normal people. If there should be the oddball who thinks it’s cool to point out what you’re doing in your kitchen is “wrong” and that your choice of napkins is hilarious, ban this person from your social calendar. With no explanations. They are not worthy!
I don’t really cook, what do I do?!
Cook together! Nothing too complicated, so you and your hungry guests won’t spend too much time in the kitchen. The Web is going to be one of your best friends here if you need to do a bit of research. Simply Recipes is a fun blog filled with easy and attractive choices. Throwing in a favourite snack from eating with your family might also be a good idea.
Cooking together is an excellent solution for many reasons. If you’re having your dinner party on a week night after work, as I regularly do, food will obviously be prepared faster and you won’t have to cook alone. It provides immediate small-talk and conversation topics, which is practical if there is someone among your party you haven’t talked to too much yet. It also helps people relax, and everyone feels like they contributed to the tasty meal that ends up on your table.
And if the meal does not end up tasty after all, there is always the option of laughing about it and ordering in. So keep the number of a tried-and-tested pizza place with delivery handy, as well as a bottle or two of nice wine.
A bit of organizing?
For the above to work, it’s good to have an idea of where your party actually stands on cooking, as well as regarding some other skills in the kitchen. Some people don’t cook, some don’t cook too much, some feel awkward in other people’s kitchens. Tactfully chat to your intended guests, and plan a little ahead. The person who you know feels nervous about cutting vegetables can help toss the salad. If someone loves to bake, show them how your oven works and leave them in charge. A friend of mine worked for while in a bar and she’s very good at pouring drinks, so that’s what I usually ask her to help me with.
If I have a small apartment?
This means you’ll be able to invite only a certain amount of people…and then mix it up anew the next time! Fear not, we’ve all been there. Check beforehand if you can move your furniture a bit to make more room around the dining table, and don’t be shy in asking your guests to help. Most of them will probably gladly offer it themselves. If you don’t have enough chairs, see if someone can bring an extra folding one. If you have a couch, you can move your table so that one side stands along the couch, thus providing extra seating opportunity.
If you don’t have a table and don’t have chairs, but still want to throw a dinner party, set up a buffet, throw around some cushions on the floor or use a carpet for seating. I’ve done this and it worked, though I certainly made sure the food was good!
Whether it’s just for the food or with outfits and decorations added, a theme can give some direction to your planning, and thus make cooking and organizing decisions easier. Share the theme with your guests, since in this case it’s very easy to make the dinner happen potluck-style.
Final tip: relax and laugh!
It’s Your Place. Even if something will break, burn, spill or one of the guests will not react to your witty conversation – so? Things happen, big and small. It’s just a dinner party, and if you’re enjoying yourself without overdoing it with the expectations, chances are everything will be fine. I once accidentally dropped a pickled gherkin in to a guest’s glass of white wine while in the middle of a very long story. After a few seconds of silence, we both laughed and later he said it was the best glass of white wine he’d ever had.
Gif source: Giphy.com