I was 12 years old and had most of my ingredients sprawled out in front of me. It was the first time I’d ever been in the kitchen to do something other than eat, ask what there was to eat, or wash dishes against my will. My inclination to bake at that point wasn’t because I had any interest in the congruous scientific workings of how baking soda, sugar, fat and flour, when measured correctly, form the perfect balance of soft and chewy. Being 12 years old meant I had an insatiable craving for sugar, and when the last crinkly wrapper of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls hit the trash, I knew I would have to take matters into my own hands. Being 12 years old with ADHD also meant I was remiss in following proper directions.
What was supposed to have been ½ a teaspoon of baking soda in the written recipe was mistakenly read as ½ a cup by my imprudent youthful eyes, which produced the saltiest, crumbliest chocolate chip cookies to ever assault my mouth. After feting the neighborhood kids’ hapless lips with my briny batch of chocolate chip crumbles and failing to peddle them as “gourmet salted chocolate chip cookies,” I threw the remaining dozen in the garbage along with any remaining interest in baking before sulking away from the kitchen, defeated. What most would shrug off a simple mistake, I understood it as inaptitude writ large and couldn’t shake feeling incompetent. It was years before I ever set foot in another kitchen.
There are traits I’ve been gifted with via natural acuity and have refined over the years with relative ease. I’ve won awards and honors for music, art and writing to a degree, as well as other means of public recognition that supposedly gives validation to ones capabilities. Though I would like to thank my success in these areas to hard work and determination, most of the credit goes to natural prowess, dexterity, and even luck. Most of anything I’ve ever succeeded at has come easily for me, which planted a deceptive seed that success is meant to be linear and simple. If something didn’t come naturally then I simply wouldn’t waste my time with it. But then I found a love for cooking, and that’s when the game changed.
My ability to cook well wasn’t inherently embedded in me. Not even close. It’s a seed I’ve sowed and carefully cultivated with the help of overwhelming curiosity and by spending countless hours over a hot stove deciphering flavor profiles, proper cooking techniques and how certain ingredients mesh well, or why others repel one another. Being an autodidactic cook with no real mentor outside of the blogosphere also means that for every success I’ve had in the kitchen there have been just as many, if not more, offensively inedible failures.
Every dried-out chicken, every fallen soufflé, every flavorless batch of greens takes me back to face my 12 year old self, sparking that same redolence of failure and inadequacy. Just last week I was carefully stuffing the cavities of four sleek, purple squids tubes before pan-frying them after having just finished the onyx squid ink sauce accoutrement. I placed the stuffed squids into the pan of spattering butter and oil to quick sear when the bodies immediately shrunk and split open, sending the stuffing spewing out and burning in the hot oil.
It was my third cooking failure that day, which must have been the magic number to send me teetering over the edge of sanity. While spitting very bad words that I probably shouldn’t write here, I threw the still-scalding hot squids into the garbage before letting loose an always-productive histrionic barrage of self-deprecating assaults. The failed squid and earlier failed octopus glowered at me from the garbage as if ready to join the cacophonous jeering. By the time I finished the tirade I was exhausted and disappointed. For the ruined squid/octopus/fish, for not even being imaginative in my self-defeating diatribe, but mostly for letting my off day get the best of me.
When I get to that dark place I try to take a deep breath and then turn to Julia Child. Julia famously admitted that she was the most god-awful cook until she really dedicated herself wholly to the trade. Julia freaking Child! The warble-voiced pinnacle of the cooking world; the woman who taught America how to stuff a duck at one point had no cooking skill whatsoever. And I’m willing to bet Julia never told a sauté pan full of squid to F itself before volleying it into the garbage of failures. Or maybe she did, I don’t know, but she didn’t let her failure consume her because Julia wasn’t petulant. She was a kitchen warrior and would go through failure after failure to test and retest a recipe as many times as necessary until the final product was as she’d originally envisioned.
Being a Type A personality isn’t easy. Working through failures in a craft I love is even harder, but I’m trying to be easier on myself. I know I cook well, but I can’t expect everything I attempt to be Michelin-star-restaurant-ready on the first try. Maybe not even on the second or third try either; there’s a reason why the saying isn’t “practice makes mediocre.” My food may burn every once in a while and the failure may (i.e. will) chisel away a little at my tender ego, but I need to keep at it and practice not allowing myself to feel so defeated. I know the satiation of finally getting “it” right after so many times of getting it wrong, and there really is no better feeling than that. Except, you know, maybe getting it right the first time and every subsequent time afterward.
Besides, if Julia could get the hang of making wine-braised bovine brains taste delicious, then there’s gotta be hope for my flops.
How do you productively work through your failures?