Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Science was never my strong point (I can still distinctly recall the irritable relationship I had with my high school chemistry teacher - actually my mother can probably remember it as well). So when a recipe goes awry, I often don't have enough of a grasp of the basic concepts in order to right my wrongs. My issues are mainly with, but certainly not limited to, making anything bread-like.

The underlying problem is my new feeling of inadequacy. The last two foodie books I read (A Cook's Tour, by Anthony Bourdain, and Julia Child's My Life in France) have given me the inordinate desire to learn French so that I don't feel quite so stupid. It seems that all great chefs learned classical techniques from French chefs/schools, and everyone keeps bringing up recipes whose TITLES are even in French. Three years of Spanish in high school (see how I blame everything on high school?) mean that I cannot even pronounce half of these dishes, much less glean any clue as to what they refer to. Ugh. I cannot ABIDE with feeling stupid.

Which brings me to the next issue: I am not finished with higher education. It took me 9 years to get my undergrad degree because I dragged it out. For years, I couldn't think of a good reason to give up free bus passes, free use of the greatest college gym facilities in the South, reduced healthcare at the student clinic, and the (pseudo)-freedom to take any class that struck my ever-changing fancy. I have so many hours under my belt that my second-to-the-last advisor warned me they might just make up a degree to fit my hours if it would get me off their rolls. And sure, I happened into a major and thus into a career that has really fit my needs and has allowed me the freedom to create my own job. I fear though that I may have missed my calling.

But hey, Julia Child didn't find her own true calling until her late thirties. As a matter of fact, she didn't even start cooking school until she was forty. And I think she was in her fifties before she first got published. So I probably shouldn't be beating myself up too badly over how much I still have to learn. But I do have to make a new list of educational goals. No longer will the list include classes in Greek culture (I swear it this time, I am REALLY leaving Homer behind). Now my goals will include learning basic French, and the anal-retentive study of culinary school textbooks so as to learn the science behind cooking. I will have to do it all by independent study at this point, because there is no way that I can go back to school right now, not with a toddler to take care of and (hopefully) another baby on the way in the near future. Someone please remind me of these reasons every time I get the itch to start filling out college apps again.

Until recently, my self-education in cooking has been limited to reading anything I could get my cheap little hands on (Cooking Light magazine, the AJC Food section, the New York Times Dining section online, etc). And sure, I've tried an absurd number of recipes, and I've even gotten fairly adept at making ingredient substitutions, and because of all that I haven't taken my severe lack of real culinary knowledge too seriously since my main and probably only goal when I embarked on this hobby (read: obsession), in the beginning at least, was just to have a wide repertoire of dinner recipes with which to dazzle my hard-working husband every night. But I have never been one to leave well enough alone.

And so now I find myself attempting all manner of complex recipes, and spending entire afternoons in the kitchen trying to perfect some new technique or another. But I have increasingly become aware of my limitations. On Sunday I attempted a focaccia bread recipe, and though I could tell something was off before I even finished kneading my dough, I didn't know how to fix it (or even how to tell for sure that something was really wrong), so I sat on eggshells for an hour and a half, anxiously lifting the towel every fifteen minutes to see if my dough was rising properly. The dough did, in fact, rise, but it was a sticky, airy, gooey, useless mess that I had to chunk out. After a hissy fit (yes mom, it really WAS about the dough), I somehow managed to salvage our dinner plans, but in a peevish snit I grabbed the biggest cookbook off my shelf and skulked outside to the porch swing where I flipped to the very first word and began reading.

Mom called a few minutes later and I told her I was reading How to Cook Everything. "What book is that?" she asked innocently, assuming I was reading another foodie memoir. "It's a 900-plus-page cookbook," I grumbled," and I'm only on page xiv. "Hm," was her uncharacteristically short and un-opinionated response, apparently not wanting to push me when it was obvious I was so close to the edge. Because of course, this isn't JUST about the food. A lot of this is just about me. Sunday was the day my second son should have been born, but instead he was delivered, stillborn, five months too early. And though emotionally I have (mostly) healed, I have had no choice, in my own mind, but to throw myself headlong into self-improvement. It was either that or wallowing, and a mother doesn't have time to wallow.

Maybe this will pass, the self-education that is, but I doubt it. I'm more focused these days than I've ever been before (one of the many benefits of parenthood), and I actually tend to finish the things that I've started. So even though I haven't yet figured out the best way to go about learning French, I have begun a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, a dry and quirky black-and-white bimonthly ultimate food nerd magazine, and I have stomped around in Ebay, bidding on a couple of used Cordon Bleu textbooks. At least this particular hobby (again read: obsession) will be of great benefit to my household; I mean, its not like I've taken up ballroom dancing or golf.

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