Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I made jambalaya

A few of you probably understand how improbable the subject line is, but for those who require more background...though I love to eat, I've never been a cook. Everyone else in my family does it well. In contrast, on a good day I can boil water and not totally screw it up. Maybe. Okay, that's an exaggeration, I can prepare a few basic meals to survive, but without an ounce of art. All I can do is go by the recipe, and I usually manage to mess that up somehow. Having me autograph your cutting board would make as much sense as having Charlie Sheen autograph your Bible.

It bothers me a little that I don't have cooking skills. I self-deprecatingly joke about it, but I think it's wrong of me to believe that I flat-out can't do something. That's a copout. I could learn to cook decently or even well if I wanted to. I would just have to practice a whole lot and get a lot of advice I could use well. It's just like anything else. My lack of natural talent just means it would take more practice, but that's ALL it means.

Oddly, I think growing up eating well, while I'd obviously never trade it, may have put me off on cooking for myself. I was very used to eating food cooked by either of my parents, both of whom are very skilled and experienced cooks. But whenever I've tried to cook before, it never turns out nearly that well, not even close. The flavors are wrong, the meats inconsistently cooked, the rice or pasta either hard or runny, the veggies limp and bland, the spices lacking or inharmonious. Even when what I make sort of tastes good, it always comes out looking seriously ugly, enough to throw off the experience of eating it just that little bit. I made cookies once, and they turned out sort of okay, but they had 50% too much chocolate and had funky flour deposits and were an unwieldy size and all stuck together or broke up too easily. Can I eat this stuff, yeah, but it's often a chore to finish what I make, and I grew up really enjoying most food I ate. As an adult, I've mostly gone around the problem by eating out all the time, and my taste buds have adjusted to it so now I crave all those multisyllabic chemicals engineered in labs to appeal to our vestigial evolutionary lusts for salt, sugar, and fat. You know, the stuff that probably kills many more lab rats than Food Inc. is ever going to admit to.

So you'll remember I talked a few days ago about how I'm now making an effort to do things I wouldn't normally do. Tonight's adventure: cook something seemingly out of my league, something more complex than I've tried before. I chose jambalaya, a dish my parents cook expertly. (As you might guess from my last name, my father's side of the family are Cajuns from Louisiana. We eat VERY well at family reunions, I assure you. Mmm.) Okay, so I looked at recipes on allrecipes.com and picked one with relatively few ingredients and instructions I might be able to follow. Went after work to get the ingredients, which took close to an hour in the crowded grocery store, and then went home and started right into preparing it. The site estimated an hour total prep and cook time - ended up being about 1:40, owing to my slowness at the prep. If I cut up veggies more than twice a year I'd be faster at it, but okay.

So omigod, how did it turn out? Uh...well, I'm glad I didn't cook it for anyone besides myself. Okay, here's the important afterschool special lesson I should take from this: have appropriate expectations. No, my dinner wasn't anywhere near good, at least by the standards of what I've come to know as jambalaya - but those are high standards, and it was my first time trying to make the dish. If I did it a hundred times, I'd figure it out at least decently. The rundown: the sausage was actually good, the rice and onions and tomatoes came out runny and uninspired, the shrimp was...rubbery and kind of off, I don't know, but I stopped eating them after about #5 and I hope I don't get sick. I'm guessing they didn't cook evenly or enough, though they looked pink and done and I cooked them as long as the recipe said. Not sure if I had the right heat setting on the stove, though. You got me...yes, I also could have asked my dad for a more tried and true recipe. I'm sure it would have been much better, but I did have it in mind that if the dish turned out really well I might pleasantly surprise family members with it. If I make the dish again, I'll do that.

So I spent a bunch of money and time on a meal bad enough that I wouldn't consider keeping the leftovers, and I'm queasy, and my kitchen is all messy now. Part of me - my stomach, presumably - feels like it was a total loss. But if I'm going to make a point of trying to do unfamiliar things, I have to accept that I'm not going to be great, good or even okay at everything I try. The trying, the getting past the fear of failure, is the point.

Despite what the Simon Cowells of the world would have us believe, we should feel no shame in being bad at something. Everyone is lousy at lots of things, and it's no big deal. In fact, everyone sucks at everything until they don't. How the hell do we ever learn anything except by failing as often as needed until we get it sussed? The only limit we have is time. If we had eternal life, every single person could eventually become absolutely great at everything, but our time here is short so we each decide for ourselves where we want to deploy our effort and go from there. And no one has any business telling us that our answer to that question is wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're giving yourself an E for effort. Yes, Jambalaya is ambitious, particularly given our family background... high expectations for that one, you know. It's great that you attempted it! And if the shrimp were opaque and pink/white, you'll be fine. Even if they were a bit translucent, you're still probably fine. Only real problem would be if they sat out raw for a long time, then they would be stinky and you probably wouldn't have made it past the first bite.

    As a cooking member of your family, I can attest to the fact that we ALL fall short of our own standards and we all royally screw up. If you're not screwing up big once in a while, you're not really trying or learning anything. Remember that lemon meringue pie I made for Dad last father's day that tasted like Pine Sol because I used too much lemon rind? (Pith, as it turns out, is waaay more bitter than the actual rind. Oops.)

    Anyway, I have the same reticence to really give music a shot. Isn't that sad? I come from such a talented family, it's actually intimidating for me because I feel like my shortcomings are so much more obvious. I would really like to overcome my perfectionism at some point and Just Do It, as the Nike ad says.