Cooking is a great hobby and memory-generator.
One of my earliest memories was Dad cooking his special variation of a "grilled cheese sandwich." It's a piece of plain white bread, a couple slices of yellow American cheese, a few rings of onion and a few dollops of ketchup. You put them on a cookie sheet under the broiler 'til the cheese starts to melt and the ketchup just starts to blister.
Then there was Nonna's chicken noodle soup. The broth was a nectar. I think it was because her home-made noodles were floured and they thickened the liquid. Grandma's "red flannel" hash was special, too. It was made with left-over roast beef and beets. She and Grandpop would tell us kids that this was what Davey Crockett and the pioneers ate, so we gobbled it up.
There have been memorable mishaps too. Thirty-some years ago, with little cooking experience, I made batch of mashed potatoes. I didn't have any milk to add. No white milk, that is, just the extra-special, extra-rich, all Jersey chocolate milk from the Curtis farm. "How much difference could it make?" I asked myself. I had no idea. Then there was a ham loaf left for me to put in the oven. There was a recipe for a glaze that called for brown sugar. Couldn't find any and but hey, maple syrup is pretty close, right? Wrong. A bit of that "glaze" it is still on the dish, I think. Things have improved over the years.
An amazing development in culinary awareness is the Food Network. Ten years ago, who would have thought chefs would achieve "rock star" status: Emeril Legasse, Rachel Ray, Guy Fieri, Paula Deen.
I once learned a valuable lesson from Emeril that I think can be applied to life in general. One night he said: "Cooking requires recipes, baking requires formulas." The context was that when "cooking" you can experiment, adjust for taste, or just "wing it." But the specific ingredients and proportions used in baking are much more critical.
So, what issues are you "cooking" or "baking" in your life these days?
I'm suggesting that "cooking" is great when things are going well, but "baking" might be a better approach when troubles pop up.
People who've "got it cookin'" are generally connected to the people they want to be connected to, they are feeling some sense of achievement, they have adequate freedom, they are healthy and know how to stay that way, they have strategies to deal with serious issues, they play. From that position of strength, they are able to enjoy life's routine and can be spontaneous and "wing" it when they want to. They add spice to their lives "to taste."
But when we are struggling, it's time to switch to the proven formulas. I think if we start with the "bakers' mentality" sticking with the rules, following the formulas, measuring the ingredients, we are likely to have good results. What are the successful strategies that have worked for you in the past? Who are the people you can turn to for help? Can you take a deep breath and allow yourself a "break in the action" to regroup mentally? You might think of these as the "canisters" that hold your baking supplies, the flour, the sugar, the baking soda, always sitting right there on the counter, ready to be measured out in precisely the right amounts.
There probably aren't any born cooks or bakers. Those who are most successful are probably the ones who have keen interest in the subject, take time to learn what works, and pay attention to the experts. If that's the kind of thing that makes cooking and baking work, maybe we can approach the rest of life the same way.
I figure if we have those solid "baking" approaches to fall back on, it won't be as hard to get back to "cookin.'" Then we can return to experimenting, winging it, and adding a little extra spice!
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C. is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.