As a teenager, I’d sit at my grandmother’s dining room table and flip through the paper while she stood a few feet away stirring up a delicious pasta sauce or frying zucchini flowers. I never got up and watched. I never asked for any recipes. It’s so easy. You don’t want to learn? she’d ask. When I declined her offer she’d shake her head and mumble something in Italian. I don’t know what you’re going to do, she’d say. You better get rich. Either that or marry a cook.
Grazie a Dio. I went and found myself a cook.
Not only does my cook have kitchen skills, but he also gets great joy out of feeding me. He also understands how quickly things unravel when left to fend for myself. It’s not that I couldn’t figure it out. I regularly cobble together something to eat when he’s not around. But it’s only sustenance, never a meal and there’s never any joy involved. We’re talking pbj, microwaved quesadilla, frozen ravioli.
So this week I decided to step up and see what would happen if I cooked for the cook. An actual meal, one that branched out from the above menu items. For those who cook several meals on a daily basis, my fears will sound absurd, but I was actually scared to try this. I pictured some kind of mild nervous breakdown in the produce section of the grocery store, a finger sliced open while hacking up a vegetable, a kitchen fire, a completely inedible plate of slop.
On the designated day, I woke up and looked over some recipes online, stopping at the first one that simultaneously made my stomach growl and didn’t induce panic when looking at the ingredients list. I announced my intension: Baked Polenta with Mushrooms and Gorgonzola
The first hurdle and the one I probably dreaded more than the rest, was getting the groceries. If I have to pin my disinterest in cooking on anything, it’s how much I loathe grocery shopping. In our house, I’m the buyer of milk, cheese and bread. That is all. Send me in to buy a shallot and some polenta and I’m in trouble. Here’s how it went down:
1. Already downtown with an extra hour on my meter, I decide to go to Safeway and get my groceries there despite the fact that Safeway sucks and the downtown Portland Safeway sucks extra. All this to save having to negotiate the maddening parking lot of my regular grocery store.
2. Inside the store, all my penny-pinching instincts flare up in a way that never happens in any other setting. I spend 15 minutes finding and then choosing between two different tubs of gorgonzola, the whole time wondering what’s so great about gorgonzola that it’s so much more expensive than regular blue cheese. I get mad that I can’t buy a single stick of butter because surely this would save me a buck. I spend another 10 minutes wandering the aisles looking for polenta, not knowing how polenta is packaged or where it might be shelved. Like a stubborn man refusing to ask directions, I refuse to ask for help. I wander over to the crappy produce section and wonder if green onions are the same as shallots. I realize I have no idea what a shallot is. Upon this realization, I give up, return the butter and cheese to their proper shelves and exit the store.
3. I negotiate the maddening parking lot of my regular grocery store. I text my partner to find out what a shallot is. I get mad that the gorgonzola here is even more expensive than Safeway’s and grab a tub of crumbled blue cheese instead. I send a clerk on a hopeless search for something other than the tube of instant sundried tomato polenta on the shelf and while he’s gone finally find both the bulk and pre-packaged forms of polenta and go with the one with printed directions. I grab the last few items for the dish along with some easy salad makings and leave feeling exhausted.
4. I finish my work for the day, step into the kitchen and discover that my roommate, a professional cook, is standing at the stove making what looks like polenta. I was too embarrassed last time he caught me trying to flip an egg to even attempt to start my own experiment in front of him. Sure, it could have been an opportunity for me to see how it was done, to ask a few questions, gain a few extremely basic skills. But no, I want this first attempt to be done in private with no witnesses to the disasters I am sure are about to happen. While I wait for him to finish I re-read the recipe, wondering what they meant when they said to make the polenta and meanwhile cook the mushrooms. Meanwhile?
5. The kitchen cleared, I get all my ingredients set out, get some music playing and dig in. As expected, my chopping skills are laughable. The pan for the mushrooms isn’t big enough. I forget to save some of the cheese to sprinkle on top of the dish. But it’s not bad. I only run in circles once, looking for the pat of butter I’d sliced off and couldn’t find. I realize with all that cheese, there’s a good chance this will be good, despite my efforts to the contrary. I regret that it doesn’t look more like the meat-vegetable-salad-starch that my mother brought to the table every damn night, but happy that nothing caught on fire.
6. We sit. We eat. It is motherfucking good.
I can’t say my grandmother would have been proud of my effort. After all, it was a single meal in a lifetime of meals. Maybe I’ll try it again. I can see how, with time, everything I feared about the process would become, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable. I could ask my roommate for a lesson in chopping. I could look over the shoulder of my own personal chef and gain some knowledge. But you see…as soon as I say “own personal chef” all my motivation drains away. Who am I to stand in the way of his joy? And besides, I’m only some small part Italian. My paternal grandmother descended from some more northern part of Europe. As far as I remember, she was a pretty lousy cook.