Recently, when I offered my overstock of fresh carrots (a story for another time) to my neighbor, she told me she couldn’t use them because she had already planned her family’s meals for the week. I marveled at the level of organization involved with that feat. At my house, dinners are not so much planned as pieced together like a puzzle, a nightly ritual of desperation, creativity, and scavenging.
If you think of the Food Network show “Chopped“, you have the idea. The contestants have to create a meal out of ingredients that have no business being plate companions. Come to think of it, I employ a variety of strategies to create meals, and all of them read like cooking reality show commercials:
- In this episode of “What’s Missing?”, returning contestant Teresa Duhl will attempt to make chicken cordon bleu with only chicken and broccoli!
- Tonight, on “Amateur Cooks”, Teresa Duhl will build a recipe in her head using whatever she can find in her kitchen and her limited cooking knowledge! (My mom clearly played this game as I am still haunted by her pot roast and carrots braised in spaghetti sauce concoction of three decades ago).
- Next time on “The Internet Made Me Do It”, lifelong contestant Teresa Duhl will Google “bacon, celery, and milk” to create a meal her family is sure to despise!
The game show concept is not just about the ingredients. It’s about the element of time. Although a giant digital clock does not drop down from my ceiling, the stove clock is pressure enough. It reminds me that I stayed too long at my desk and now dinner will be late and clean-up will wear on into the late evening hours. (Ugh). Those glowing greenish-blue digits sear the time into my brain, urging me to move faster because, in 20 minutes, one of us has to rush out the door.
And judges? Yeah, I have those too. Three of them, my husband and two sons. By now, I have (almost) learned never to ask what they think. They have (almost) learned to praise the meal when they like it. But, for the kids, disgust is still a very physical, overt sentiment. Of course, there are the facial expressions of fear and torment as they realize that what lies on their plates stands between them and dessert, but there is also gagging, and the number of glasses of liquid they require in order to choke down the results of my creativity.
But, then there are the nights that I hit the jackpot, when it feels like decades of cooking and experimenting and picking up tidbits of knowledge from other cooks all comes together. The chicken rubbed with butter and spices, stuffed with lemons and garlic, and roasted over a bed of carrots, onions, and peppers. And the nights when the judges are so ravenously hungry that even plain old scrambled eggs are a feast for the senses.
Despite the nightly rigor of it, in my heart, cooking is not a competitive sport. It is ritual, example, art, practice, necessity, and a values choice. So, I’ll take my chances on the judges’ disdain. I get to test my skills again tomorrow night.