Winning. I like winning.
It feels good.
It’s just that simple.
Whether it is a contest of strength, a contest of will, or even just something that you put yourself through for the sheer hell of seeing if you can do it or not, that moment where you have victory clenched tight in your hands is one of the most delicious things in life. I’m good at a lot of things, I suppose, but my most satisfying moment of WIN came in the kitchen, of all places.
Some of you will be surprised to find out that I was once what TV Tropes calls a “Lethal Chef.” Food came out unrecognizable, or worse—perfectly recognizable, but tasting strongly of a combination of ash and overbaked leather, or plaster, or expired saline.
I remember, back when I was seventeen, I really couldn’t cook. I mean…it was bad. REALLY bad. Like, Raine from Tales of Symphonia was better than me (hey, she had the best grades for desserty things). Tales of the Abyss’s Natalia? …well, I don’t think I was THAT bad. I’ve never caused a stew to spontaneously combust, at any rate.
Back on topic, when I was a teenager, I couldn’t cook well at all. I remember burning pancakes because I was too impatient and insisted on having the flame on the stove about two inches high. Then there was the oatmeal incident. In this case it was more of a hardware failure—the pot I used was brand new…and freshly recalled for a small safety fault. Let’s just say that breakfast went quite literally out of the window that day—we didn’t own a fire extinguisher. I resolved that year to do something about my title of Lethal Chef, immediately.
I read books, watched cooking shows, took notes when family members would cook things, and eventually try to do what they did to make things better. It was about this time where I became a full-fledged foodie: I discovered that when you went all out for good raw materials, you usually had better food be the end result. My first real meal, I cooked for my aunt and cousins—white and wild rice pilaf, fried-then baked crisp pork chops, buttery-cheese broccoli, and biscuits—in exchange for a flat ironing of my hair (I looked like Cousin WHATT, Cousin Itt’s lesser-known sibling, in that hairnet). The meal went so well I couldn’t help but brag to my skeptical other cousins and my dad.
Later that year, a bigger test was set in front of me as Dad let me skip school and go to Soulard, MO’s farmer’s market.
You gotta understand, this place is like a personal Mecca.
Soulard: home of the biggest Mardi Gras extravaganza in the area. However, this was December, and Mardi Gras was yet weeks off—and, being a fairly newly-minted Pagan, totally irrelevant to my interests. No, the draw to Soulard this year was the Farmer’s Market. While there are other farmer’s markets in this area, the one at Soulard is above and beyond. Never would one expect that, smack-dab in the middle of the St. Louis metropolitan area, one could find such things as bison, elk, possum (well, maybe you WOULD expect that one; for the record—not bad), and so many heirloom crops that when I tried to look at all of it at once, my head almost did spin. If you needed something new, something rare, something deliciously, sinfully exotic, you went to Soulard. And if they didn’t have it? You keep asking—someone there will almost certainly “know a guy who knows a guy” and you’ll get what you need soon.
*replaces record needle*
We grabbed lots of things, and I pieced together what Dad was going to cook as I checked our list for things we missed. Then we get home.
“So, you’re gonna cook Christmas dinner this year.”
I double-take. “Wait, what? ME?”
He repeated it slower.
“But—I can’t cook. No one will eat it.”
“I got a plan.”
Usually when Dad says he has a plan, there is trickery, hustling, and overall sneakiness involved. …I liked where this was going.
The next six hours blow past: Clarifying butter, soaking walnuts, hand-compounding the seasoning because we could only find what we needed whole, throwing things in other things at still other things. At one point, Dad gives me a lesson about cooking with wine.
“Taste this.” He hands me a cobalt-blue mug with a splash of white wine in it. Keep in mind that I’m seventeen here.
I blink for a second, shrug, take a whiff of it (nice fragrance, at least), and taste.
“SWEET MERCIFUL GODDESS!” I splutter, then cough. It’s like drinking woody, tangy FIRE. Somehow I manage a gruff “Smooth” after I get my breath back.
“This is NOT a drinking wine. It’s too rough for that. But the roughest drinking wine is the best cooking wine.”
“Bottoms up, then…” and I measure 1 & 1/2 cups of the stuff and add it slowly to the clarified butter, cream, bell peppers and walnuts on the stove.
About five hours later, everything is cooked. The house smells wonderful. My cousins have arrived, and I make quite the show of not being the one who is obviously paying attention to the stove, instead turning my attention to my second POT of tea that day. We do a little perfunctory grace thing, and then we serve ourselves.
It’s delicious. It’s wonderful. It’s like I remember Mom making, so many years ago, and I can barely contain myself—this food that’s so good, I made this! I can cook!
We finally decide to let my cousins in on who did the cooking. Reactions were predictable: a “No way” look, a Flat What…and then plates being pushed away.
Five seconds pass. Ten. Half a minute.
Suddenly one of them grabs his plate again and goes right back to chowing down, somehow managing to say “I don’t care, man, this is good” between bites.
I can’t help but do a little skippy happy dance. I can cook!
That day, victory tasted like a rich, pesto-infused white-wine mushroom and walnut sauce over fresh egg noodles.