How do You Work Through Your Failures?

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.



The semi-failure; edible but not perfect.

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.

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Paella and the Perils of Shopping for Fish in Spain


What in the name of good Jesus Christ are those?!” My classmate spat out through suppressed gags while pointing at the glass of the fish case.

It was my first cooking class in Madrid and we had just arrived at the local market to pick out fresh ingredients for the class itinerary.  It hadn’t been five minutes since we got there before the disgusted student, a middle-aged Canadian woman on vacation with her husband, found something repugnant enough to beckon the name of JC to help her cope with it all. I followed her finger and found the offense in question: a heap of fleshy pink veinous blobs.

Fish that is probably human brains

A zombie's delight.

I didn’t even have an answer for her, and truthfully, I was only half attentive to what was going on around me at that point. I, too, was fixated on what I can only assume to be HUMAN BRAINS (assumedly…probably) being sold in the fish case.  The sight of cerebral matter hanging out with mackerel was almost as disturbing as when I was walking down the sidewalk earlier that morning through a stream of running water, only to look up and realize the “stream of running water” I was sloshing through was coming from an elderly bearded woman squatting and urinating on the walkway. Where was this lady’s ringmaster? I wasn’t sure what circus she ran away from that let her act like such an animal, but that is an image that will never leave my brain and may necessitate some Grade-A therapy when I get back to the States.

Fish Market Fare

Still, I’m not 100% as to what those fleshy oblong lumps are. The sign dubiously read pescado fresca (i.e. “fresh fish”) and when I asked the fish vendor he just laughed and said, “yes! Yes!” before walking in the back room. Even he didn’t know.

In any case, shopping for fish — especially in a country with a veritable smorgasbord of available sea fare — is one part dinner preparation and four parts alien identification. Some of these things have the sort of teeth you can only find in nightmares or vagina dentata, while others have unidentifiable parts and purposes that make you just wish it were taco night. Take this beauty for instance:

Monkfish / Rape

Note that the thing above is what I now know to be a monkfish, but in Spain they call it a “rape.” As if it could be anymore terrifying. Later that day I Googled “how to prepare a rape” and judging from the upsetting results, I don’t think I was on the right trail. I’m also pretty sure Google sent my search to the police.

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Rainy Days in Madrid with Sopa de Ajo (Garlic Soup)

Sopa de AjoThe weather that met me here in Madrid was somewhat less hospitable than assumed. During the first few days I was caught in a couple Madrilenian deluges of rain, which sneakily materialized from formerly blue and crystal clear skies. Like clockwork, the rain would wait until I was a good kilometer walk from home before showing its wet, ugly face.

I’d just left the grocery story with my hands full of bags and was hiding under an awning waiting for torrential abatement. Next to me a Russian man was talking on the phone in broken English about his meal of “ham-bor-gars and French frowns.” Opposite to my awning stood the depressed Hello Kitty from a few days prior, her wet head weighing heavily on her narrow shoulders. She looked at me with empty, sympathetic eyes. I checked her mittens for sharp objects, just in case.

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Walk of Spain, Madrid Tour and Meeting my Homeless Girlfriend

*You’ll have to excuse any editing errors, given my sporadic internet accessibility, there may be some spelling and/or grammatical erros. <—There’s one now.

On my third day in fickle-weathered Madrid, it became apparent that I needed to buy groceries for my apartment. When I first arrived I was so hungry, but most markets were closed due to Dos de Mayo Uprising, so my options were severely limited. I scoured the cupboards for food and made use of what was left behind: half a package of dried noodles and a can of lemon sardines. Let it be known that few things in life are as revolting as canned sardines, namely hairy knuckles on a woman or the joyous laughs of small children. But being desperately ravenous and without any other recourse, I developed a negligibly edible lunch that would definitely besmirch my cooking abilities had anyone else ate a modicum of a nibble. I couldn’t help but think that someone – anyone – on Top Chef could have made better use with these ingredients and ended up throwing out the majority of what was made. The garbage groaned and declared me a mortal enemy.

The following day I made my way up to Puerta del Sol, which translates literally to “Door of the Sun”, but appears to be more a door to the tourist conglomeration of Madrid. Puerta del Sol is a huge shopping district within Madrid’s city center containing large, four-story-plus department and clothing stores which accommodate the most cutting edge and fashionable items at somewhat steep prices. Like most plazas throughout Madrid, Puerta del Sol opens up to a large courtyard displaying ancient edifices sprawling in each direction. Off to one side I see an incongruously placed, but considerably busy, McDonald’s and wonder how many American tourists necessitated that build.

Inside one of the stores I try to buy groceries and toiletries, but I’m thrown off by the prices. Fingernail clippers are no less than 6 or 7€ and hand mirrors run around 50 to 110€. I skip the beauty section and make way toward hygiene. At this rate I can expect to find toothpaste for around 4 or 5 thousand euros.

Around the center of the courtyard was a flowing fountain and large seating structures that were being torn down by construction crews. Apparently I’d missed a spectacle, but part of one still remained where a motley crew of costumed characters walked around.

I found Mickey and Minnie.

Mickey and Minnie

And Spongebob.

Spongebob Squarepants

And Cookie Monster.

Cookie Monster

A sad and possibly suicidal Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty

And Minnie and Mickey. And…Mickey?

Two Mickeys and a Minnie


Mickey Impostor

Also throughout the center are droves of street performers with sheets or hats laid out in front of them to fetch payment for their productions. There were two shady-looking tattooed men dressed as clowns (and what I mean by “dressed as clowns” is they had on mismatched knee-high socks, a sullied red nose and the clowns said “honk” when they squeezed them and multicolored baggy pants that probably hid shivs. Or diarrhea. Or both.). There was an older shawled woman turning away at an aging, large-sized music box that emanated a melody that warbled pleas for a tuning gone long neglected. I asked the person next to me where the monkey in a fez was, but they ignored me.

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