The fear of cooking

I’ve been researching vegan recipes. It’s actually sort of a strange hobby I have. I call it a hobby because I never actually use the recipes I find. In fact, I almost never cook. Hello, I’m the laziest vegan you have ever met!

In truth, it has nothing to do with being vegan. I’ve been doing this — creating elaborate cooking fantasies built on copious recipe research — for years! I put cookbooks on my Amazon wish list and download recipe and food apps all the time. I have so many cookbooks — with pages carefully dog-eared — that they overflow a cabinet in my kitchen. But once I lovingly pour over them, they just pass the time in the cabinet collecting dust.

The reality is that I have a tendency toward a bad combo of complacency and laziness, which translates into a surprising lack of cooking. As it turns out, veganism is an excellent enabler for my cooking aversion! Thanks to Oprah and that week she went vegan on Kathy Freston’s plan, veganism had a whole trend sensation a few years ago. So not only are there scores of vegan cookbooks, but also enough frozen and canned prepared foods at the grocery store that I have essentially not cooked since my daughter was born. (And I use the term “cook” in the traditional sense here — actual application of chopping, heating, combining, etc of foods. No microwaving or pre-packaged shortcuts.) By way of context: My kid is three and a half.

In fact, a sighting of me stirring something on the stove is so rare that a couple days ago my daughter asked me what I was doing. (I was making steel-cut oats, which is barely a step up from boiling water.) When I told her I was cooking, she gave me a confused look and glanced behind me at the microwave. I could see the wheels turning in her toddler brain. But food comes from the microwave. I’m certain she thinks all food is made in the microwave, with the exception of pizza (which is the only time the oven is ever on).

I have no idea why I continue to fantasize about making food at home because it is so rare that I get flop sweat when I think of making food for anyone other than my child and husband. I have no idea about portions beyond three people. (And, to be fair, the toddler eats a wildly varying amount, depending on growth spurts.) And without a recipe to follow — fuggetaboutit.

Since this is a long-term delusion (that I will cook if I have the recipes) that extends far beyond my three years as a vegan, I can only conclude that it comes from a fear of cooking. Or, to be more precise, a fear of failure. And failure is something I am all too familiar with in the kitchen. I have managed to burn things beyond edibility more times than I can count. I have two scars on my right thumb. One is from burning myself in the exact same spot — three different times. The other is from a deep cut that I got from a butter knife … while slicing a bagel. I have set off smoke detectors. Cleared rooms. And I even gave myself food poisoning while pregnant that was so bad I had to go to the hospital to get IV fluids. Combine all that with my hereditary short fuse and, well, it’s best to just hide until the scary parts have passed.

No wonder I’m afraid to experiment in the kitchen! The place is a time-capsule of failure!

And yet … I have to eat every day. And as far as I can tell, kids have to eat every five minutes (except when you put something in front of them). Add to that living with a guy who is training for a marathon and you’ve got a house full of people who are always hungry. Obviously, we get by. We certainly aren’t starving. I can zap a packet of ready rice, followed by a fully cooked chicken breast from the freezer, like nobody’s business. (I am the only vegan at my house.) Add a salad or zap some frozen veggies and I call that good. We always have some kind of fruit and veggies on hand, so I don’t really worry about that part. Then I heat up something for myself in the microwave and that’s dinner. Repeat: Infinity.

But the fact is, I have had very delicious vegan food, prepared by friends or at restaurants. It’s not “good for” vegan. It was actually mouth-watering delicious. So I ask for the recipe. I take it home. I carefully open the cookbook cabinet — with one hand out to catch anything that tumbles out as I open it — cram the recipe into whatever nook I can find and shut the whole thing up. The delusional lying part of my brain is going, “Alright! New recipe! That was delicious. We should totally try to make that tomorrow!” Meanwhile, the completely jaded part of my brain that usually controls things is all, “You’re funny.”

While it doesn’t really meet the definition of irony, there is something sort of funny that as this little head-game is happening in my kitchen every damn day, there is a whole new wave of young feminists out there trying to reclaim domesticity. I’ll leave the arguing about whether or not that is possible or feminist or whatever for some other blogger or some other day. I just have to chuckle to myself that despite the politics of it all, I find myself in my kitchen at five o’clock, staring into my freezer and over-crammed pantry and feeling a sense of panic. Sure, we all have those times when we hate to hear, “What’s for dinner?” But for me … well, I’d rather just fish a frozen dinner out of the freezer and try again tomorrow.

And just to be clear, I don’t think my situation has anything to do with feminism in particular. I grew up poor in a household that was by turns divorced-parent and single-parent driven. Everybody had to work or there was no food at all. And for whatever reason, nobody ever really bothered teaching much about cooking. Sure, I learned how to make pancakes and a casserole (recipe: Velveeta cheese, Spam, noodles, and vegetable of choice). My grandmother, who was raised on a farm and in the old Polish ways, tried to teach me how to make bread once. Eventually, I taught myself how to make cookies. Because I wanted to eat cookies. And I found out by accident that I can make a killer flaky pie crust because my mom was so frustrated while making one that someone had to intervene. This pretty much represents the sum total of things I learned how to cook by the time I was 18. From there I just picked things that I could make from a box, by adding things to boiling water, by zapping in the microwave, or from the freezer (or some combination of all the above).

But aren’t I too old now — and with far too many responsibilities — to still be just fending my way through life? I am a college-educated, grown woman. I’ve been married 17 years. I have a mortgage. I vote and pay taxes. I even lobby for bills. But ask me to make lentil soup from scratch and I get all clammy and excuse-prone. And that’s not even a hard recipe!

So here’s the deal, I’m challenging myself to learn how to make a week’s worth of recipes. Nothing fancy. I’m not going all Julie/Julia Project. I just think that a grown person should be able to cook dinner without having a minor panic attack. I think it will be healthier for me and my family. Maybe I will never grow to like cooking. But if I can get good at a few simple (yet tasty) recipes, that seems worthwhile. I feel like there’s got to be something meaningful in that — not to mention healthier and better for the environment.

Wish me luck! And if you have a good vegan recipe, share it in the comments!

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9 comments

  1. Not a recipe per se, but for some good ones you might want to check out the blog http://www.casualkitchen.blogspot.com. The author Daniel Koontz has good, practical and pragmatic, inexpensive cooking amd life advice. His recipes are always simple and often what he calls “laughably cheao”. Not all vegan but many are; he is what he calls a “part-time vegetarian”. Disclaimer: Dan is a friend of mine so of course I’m biased, but you should still check it out. No bad food advice from him ever.

    • oops….I meant “Laughably cheap”. and “and” instead of “amd” Posting before coffee:-) And, btw, I cook a fair amount and consider myself a decent cook. I am not vegetarian but my husband is, so I don’t often cook meat. And I also have a large cookbook collection. If I get a new one, I read it cover to cover, and then put it away and never look at it again. To me, cookbooks are a way of getting ideas. If I need specific recipes (such as when my husband requests squash soup), I google them. However, I am tempted to buy Mollie Katzen’s new cookbook, the Heart of the Plate. My friend Dan just raved about this book in his blog, and pointed out that the book will give you a strong foundation in vegetarian cooking as well as good recipes….

  2. I recently I spoke up at a Weight Watchers meeting. I wanted to praise the Weight Watchers cookbook I had purchased at the previous meeting. The leader asked what recipe I had used. “Oh, I don’t really cook … I just love to read cookbooks!”

  3. I taught my husband to cook when he was in his 40s. He started off being able to boil water. Now he uses recipes as guidelines and experiments. Sometimes things go wrong but it amazes our friends the various ethnic dishes he cooks as well as interesting deserts he makes.

    My recommendation is start with easy foods and a friend to cook with. I’ve been cooking with my mom since I was 3 and by myself by 7 or so. I’ve helped a number of people learn to cook. The things I’ve found help the most when you’re learning to cook later in life:

    1. It’s not about how the food looks. It’s about how it taste.

    2. Assemble all the ingredients a day before-hand – refrigerator items together in a bag, non-fridge stuff in a bag on the counter. Double-check that you have everything. An experienced cook will substitute if something is missing but for the 1st year this will cut down on your anxiety. Actually we still do this 12+ years later even measuring many of the ingredients out (each in their own ziplock & then the smaller bags put into a large ziplock) for more complicated menus (holidays, dinner guests, birthdays, anniversaries).

    3. Cooking with a friend is more fun than cooking alone most of the time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in learning. I’m sure you have friends that would love to give you a hand. Alcoholic drinks or fun virgin drinks can add a “party” atmosphere and help you relax.

    4. Everyone makes mistakes. Even after 40 years of cooking I mess up, get severe burns (never forget pot holders before grabbing things LOL), burn things to a crisp (setting off fire alarms was normal in our house for a while). We laugh about it and grab take-out or have sandwiches.

    5. When having people over ask them to come early to prepare the meal with you – each bringing what’s needed for a dish. This is a great way to learn how different people cook so you learn there is no “right” way. It can also be a lot of fun for the guest and host alike.

    • Thanks Tasha! These are good tips. I don’t think it’s a matter of being incapable but rather lack of knowledge and practice. Lord knows I have plenty of recipes bookmarked and dog-eared! Time to put it into play. And hopefully my kiddo will be like you one day — confident and proficient in a kitchen. I think it’s a really undervalued life skill.

      • Cooking is scary if you haven’t been taught and have had a few bad experiences. Heck when I have holidays to prepare for I turn into a scary monster (I’m told) even though I have a bunch of systems in place to make it more efficient and spread out over a few days.

        Cooking with your kid is the best way for her to grow up thinking its normal to cook. Age 3 she can start pouring & stirring things in bowls. Age 5 she’s ready for cookie cutters and more. By 7 supervised stove & oven. 12 unsupervised.

        Make sure to teach her not to laugh at all her friends who can’t cook or… Well it can ruin friendships. That’s why I started teaching others how to cook claiming it was fun… And it is fun in a group. Not so much night after night after night (boy did I hear about that LOL). But that’s why you teach your spouse/significant other/roommates/friends to cook so you either cook together (fun) or share the duty so it’s not as bad.

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