The house reeked of garlic because I didn’t know the difference between a clove and a bulb. The mashed potatoes were a gluey mass. The chocolate cake looked like an exploded volcano, but at least it had plenty of cracks for the runny icing. Company was arriving, and dinner was a disaster.
This was an era when few men ventured into the kitchen. My new husband was blessedly tolerant of my ineptitude in the cooking sphere. The guests didn’t hold my failed experiments against me.
Childhood hadn’t prepared me for cooking. My single mother worked five and a half days every week, yet attended every concert or special event my brother and I were involved in. Eating was essential. Cooking was a nuisance.
“You’ll have to cook the rest of your life,” she would say as she popped a tray of fish sticks in the oven or stirred the bean soup. “You don’t have to start now.”
At 23, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the task of planning, shopping for and preparing three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A kindly relative had given me a copy of The Joy of Cooking as a wedding gift. Of all the gifts we received, this book was the most used.
I wrote in the margins, wiped off grease spatters, and pored over every recipe that sounded like something a newbie cook could handle. I planned the weekly menus and shopped for ingredients. Measuring tools in hand, I prepared meals as if wavering a few ounces would bring on disaster.
Early successes built my confidence. Before long, I was subscribing to Gourmet and Bon Appétit and tackling from-scratch croissants from Julie Child’s Art of French Cooking. Making meals for guests morphed into four-day marathons.
And then Life took a turn, as she always does. I found myself in a different country, on a farm far from the nearest grocery store, with chores and consulting work that occupied more hours than any full-time job.
I had amassed a large collection of cook books and gourmet magazines but no longer had time to read recipes. I had cooked the world but was now living with someone suspicious of anything unfamiliar and adamantly opposed to eating leftovers.
The big shift freed me from the Rule of the Recipe. No oregano for the spaghetti sauce? No mushrooms for the Stroganoff? Neither was worth an hour’s round trip to the grocery store. I learned to love improvisation and substitution more than exactitude. I taught myself to add ingredients that disguised leftovers as brand-new dishes. I became adept at turning whatever was in the refrigerator and pantry into palate-pleasing combinations. Necessity was a good mother to my inventions.
Now in my 34th home, I live with a partner who enjoys good and varied food as much as I do. He is adept at soup making and regularly finds inspiration in trying new recipes. I never bother with risottos because his are so good. Although he adheres to written instructions more than I do, he is not afraid to throw in his own variations. Cooking, for both of us, is an expression of love.
I still read recipes with as much pleasure as I read novels, but I’m not bound by them. I have learned enough about food to free me from strict rules.
And isn’t that what this passage through life is about? We learn the basic rules of walking, talking, eating, and functioning in society. We add to them a decade or more of formalized rule learning, as we tackle the fundamentals of reading, writing, science, mathematics and whatever else is considered essential as we go through school.
But most of life is improvisation. We are better at it once we have learned enough of the basics about life, relationships, and the world to act responsibly and lovingly. As we mature, we learn to create our own lives without having to keep referring to someone else’s recipe. Life throws a hodgepodge of ingredients our way. We taste them, recombine them, and share our unique creations. They become our stories. Some are sweet, others salty or bitter.
No one else would have taken the same ingredients and crafted them in quite the same way. They are our own, unique recipes for living.
They live on in the memories of friends and family and in the legacies of books, poems, paintings, songs, and even the emails and blog posts we leave behind.