Friday, December 7, 2012

I was a lousy cook.

I took Home Ec. in middle school and learned the basics of following a recipe.  I knew how to use measuring cups, how to boil water; I could crack eggs, flip pancakes, and whip up a mean batch of Hamburger Helper, by the time I headed to college.  But I hated cooking.  Along with various other forms of housekeeping, cooking was a chore I’d felt strapped with as a teenager, and I took no joy in turning raw ingredients into meals.  In fact, I survived college eating at the cafeteria, or whipping up microwave food, splurging occasionally on spaghetti, and feeding on snack foods throughout the day.

When I landed in Villach, Austria, after college, and hit the Spar store for rations the first time, I was shocked.  I felt like Ma Ingalls shopping at the general store.  The boxed dinners I had counted on were nowhere to be found.  Meat had to be requested by the cut, from the butcher; I didn't know what any of the cuts were called in English, let alone German.  The small rows of shelves were full of raw ingredients – flour, oil, starch.  The produce was locally grown, making small, pathetic piles compared to the enormous, shiny fruits and vegetables I was used to picking up at the store back in the U.S.  Even the eggs appeared to have been pulled out from under a chicken just that morning – sometimes feathers or bedding were still stuck to them.

I struggled to feed myself for the first couple months I lived in Villach.  I ate spaghetti three times a week.  Cereal and yogurt were daily staples.  A fellow teaching assistant turned me on to Brie cheese on zwieback toast, and I probably ate that twice a day.  I was walking several miles each day, back and forth to work and everywhere else I needed to go, so my pathetic cooking caught up with me.  I was hungry all the time.
Then my little sister bought a plane ticket and joined me in Villach.  While I’d been off at college, getting educated, she’d been developing her life skills in the school of hard knocks.  I thought, when she asked if she could come to Europe with me for a few months, that it was going to help her break out of her stagnation; I thought I was going to help open her eyes to the bigger possibilities in life and we were going to have a blast, touring the continent and spending time together.  What I never imagined, was that my sister – still a kid in my eyes – was going to head into that ill-equipped Spar store with me, and walk down the aisles putting spices and ingredients into our basket with a deft confidence that made my jaw drop.

That was before we even hit the kitchen.  It was there that I truly became her student.  She would grab a few staples and start opening the spice jars to give them a sniff before adding a bit of one thing, or more of something else.  She chopped vegetables and minced garlic. As she worked in the kitchen, I just watched her and learned.  She wasn’t afraid.  She didn’t need a recipe, and she wasn’t worried whether every dish turned out Betty-Crocker-perfect.  She just used her imagination to build a dish in her head, what the flavors would taste like together, how long to keep it on the heat to get it crisp, when to add salt and when to leave it out.  Of course, there was no pressure on the outcome: I was starving and thrilled to eat something besides zwieback.  What I got, though, were delicious meals, and a new attitude.  It was fun to cook with my sister.  And after she left, and later, once I’d come back to the U.S., it was fun to cook on my own.

I learned so much from watching my sister cook. The kitchen is no longer a chemistry lab, upon which I expect to be graded.  Instead it is an art studio.  There is now such a joy for me in experimenting with ingredients and techniques.  I see the cookbook as a guidebook, instead of a manual, and love looking over a list of ingredients and imagining the flavors, building the dish in my head and tweaking it to fit the groceries I have in my cupboards, or the preferences of who I am cooking for.  Sometimes everything turns out fantastic, and my kids rave about how much better my meatloaf is than the restaurant stuff.  Sometimes it doesn’t go as well, and we serve our dinner with lots of ketchup and barbeque sauce.

But the most important thing is that my kitchen has become a place of love and joy.  I enjoy making the menu and buying the food, I love to sit around the table with my beloved family and see them nourished by what I have prepared for them.  I think my sister got a lot out of her visit to Austria – but more than that, I still treasure the lessons I learned from her.

Anyone too lazy to cook will starve, but a hard worker is a valuable treasure. Proverbs 12:27

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