When I think back on my life, I cannot remember a time when I was not cooking something. I remember as a little girl my mother would sit me on the floor with a pot of water and a spoon and tell me to stir. It kept me busy, but instilled in me a comfort in the kitchen. As I grew older, she would let me experiment more and more. The funny thing is that while my mother could out bake me on any day, I by all family accounts am the much better cook. To this day, my brother and I still laugh about my mother’s dry turkey, meat that was either still mooing or shoe leather and spaghetti sauce made with ketchup, water, and cream cheese. So I think I began cooking for my family because I could not stand my mother’s cookingJ. When my mother cooked the old time Jewish foods like kasha, kugel, knishes, blintzes, and the list goes on, they were awesome and we fought for the last bite. But the rest of the time, well let’s say my brothers and I were glad we had a dog.
Today, my friends enjoy my cooking and I enjoy cooking for my friends. One of the things I enjoy most is watching others enjoy my food. As one friend told me recently, she could taste the love in my cooking. That to me is the ultimate compliment. On the other hand, I do have some friends who have this fear of cooking and of the kitchen. In talking with them, what I have come to understand is that they tend to compare their cooking skills to those of their friends and thus feel incompetent. I am not a trained chef and what I know I taught myself and I continue to teach myself about new foods, new techniques, and enjoy experimenting. But if you were to ask me to compare my cooking to someone like Iron Chef Cat Cora or my all time favorite on Top Chef Carla Hall, I would tell you that I am a novice and know virtually nothing. I would feel incompetent.
But we do not master any skills without practice. I can still remember my first attempt at macaroni and cheese. Let’s just say that even though it came from a box, I somehow managed to not cook it well. But over time, I mastered the boxed version. Once I mastered the boxed version, which was the only kind I knew growing up, I began playing with it by adding things to it like cut up hot dogs or taco meat and taking it to the next level.
Then I had this life changing experience. I had macaroni and cheese. Not the box kind, but real creamy ooey gooey macaroni and cheese and after that the box kind, well let’s say it rarely shows up in my pantry anymore. So I spent the next several years experimenting, changing, and slowly tweaking my macaroni and cheese recipe. I have been told that my seven cheese macaroni and cheese is more like cheese and macaroni and makes you “wanna slap your mamma.”
And just when I thought I had arrived at the mastery of the perfect macaroni and cheese, I met friends at a local restaurant for dinner and experienced goat cheese macaroni and cheese. It was one of those dishes that you finished and then had to order a second serving of it because it was that good. I would like to say I keep going back for more of this amazing macaroni and cheese, but the restaurant took it off the menu. So I was forced to take my macaroni and cheese pursuit to the next level and have now been working on the perfect goat cheese macaroni and cheese. It is evolving and getting there, but I am not quite there with it yet, it still needs tweaking.
But knowing that macaroni and cheese did not have to just be elbow macaroni and cheddar cheese or Velveeta (actually I use both in my seven cheese macaroni and cheese); I have found myself experimenting with various pastas and “cheeses.” I use the term “cheese” loosely because I recently made a tray of macaroni and cheese with whole-wheat elbow macaroni and pureed butternut squash with some soymilk and a hint of mild curry paste. When heating up the leftovers I added some left over black bean burgers to it. I have also tried making it with gorgonzola, not my favorite version thus far and doing a southwest version with habanero cheddar and jalapenos. (I made this when no one was home with me).
The whole point is that I had to start somewhere. I began with the basics, the good old boxed macaroni and cheese. As I mastered that skill, I began experimenting a little bit and slowly taking my macaroni and cheese skills to that next level. The next level is always ahead of me, it is a constant process of evolution and growth.
For me this journey has not just been about the macaroni and cheese, but it is also about how we evolve spiritually. We start with a spiritual discipline, then we master that, and then we take that to the next level and so forth and so on. Cooking, like spirituality, is all about the journey and disciplining ourselves into freedom through practice.