The Thing a Food Writer Isn't Supposed to Say
I have something to confess: over the past few weeks, I have been so grateful to have the Share Our Strength campaign to focus on and write about, because my food mojo? Gone, baby. Gone. Like J. Lo's dignity.
Below is a photo of what was supposed to be a powder for the Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive dish on page 205. A vanilla bean powder that used $40 worth of vanilla beans. DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A POWDER TO YOU?
That glob of stuff wasn't even salvageable because in an effort to try and find another way to powderize it, all the tapioca maltodextrin ended up making it taste like a My Little Pony-scented Yankee candle coated in Splenda.
This next photo is a shot of my attempt at adapting the Crab, cashew, parsnip, young coconut dish on page 309, since I can't eat coconut. I had to use king crab instead of dungeness; I diced parsnips and milk-blanched then roasted them; made candied and spiced cashews, and tossed in some Thai basil, warm chard, wild rice, and an orange-saffron vinaigrette. On paper it sounded good. When I tasted as I went along, things were delicious. But everything together? SUCKED. It tasted terrible, was just all wrong, and really, really bad. I threw the whole thing away.
You might be thinking, oh come on, Carol... these are elements and ingredients from Alinea recipes. You're not a chef. Don't beat yourself up. We love when you fail. It's funny.
I reassuringly said the very same thing to myself, and then worked on a few other ingredients and components of other dishes. They failed, too. I didn't even bother to photograph them because there was really nothing to photograph. I rationalized it by reminding myself that it's just a blog, I'm not a trained chef, and sometimes things just don't go the way I want them to no matter how much I'd like for that to happen. I'm learning, and I have to keep trying. But when 7 or 8 things in a row just don't come together despite my fastidiousness? I was starting to take it personally.
I figured, maybe I just need a week or so away from the Alinea cookbook. Give myself a break. I watched a few old Seinfeld episodes and went to bed. And then, the very next day? I flipped my morning egg and it landed half in the pan, and half on the floor. I make eggs nearly every single morning. I bet in my lifetime I've successfully flipped more than 5,000 eggs, and on the heels of some really frustrating (and expensive) blog-related cock-ups, I'm now screwing up eggs? THE SIMPLEST THING ON EARTH I KNOW HOW TO COOK AND I CAN'T EVEN DO THAT??!?!?!?!??
Oh, but wait... there's more.
Over the next 48 hours, I:
Cut my hand peeling an apple;
Broke the yolk on another flipping (ha!) egg;
Dropped a bottle of wine on the floor, shattering it to bits;
Dropped a 5-pound container of sugar (on my big toe, no less), sending sugar all over the kitchen floor and into the laundry room, which has cork floors, so GOOD TIMES getting granules of sugar out of cork's nooks and crannies;
Broke my butter dish;
Made meatballs that fell apart and tasted like crap;
Blew a fuse running too many appliances at once;
Overcooked some pasta and forgot to salt an entire batch of tomato sauce;
Forgot to put soap in the dishwasher before I ran it on full cycle. Twice;
Burned a batch of chestnuts in an attempt to roast them over an open fire; and
Poured rancid milk in my coffee.
At first, I decided food was ganging up on me. Or, maybe there was a full moon. Or, maybe I was losing my senses of sight and smell and my dexterity as a result of growing up near Three Mile Island. Then, I had a total Occam's Razor moment and it became really, really clear that the answer was simple: the problem was me. I just needed to step away from that room of the house for a bit. Everything I touched was turning to s-h-youknowwhat.
So, I waved a little white dish towel in surrender and decided to let others do the cooking for me. Maybe all I needed was a little inspiration, some good food in my favorite restaurants, some time away from my own kitchen to help get my mojo back. On Day Two of the letting-other-people-cook-for-me experiment, I was inadvertently glutened.
You guys, I have not had gluten in my system for a very long time. Within 45 minutes of finishing lunch, I was so very sick. Hunched over in bed sick. Clutching my stomach sick. Running to the bathroom every ten minutes for the next 12 hours sick. Knowing I was going to feel "off" for the next day or two sick. Every single pre-diagnosis symptom returned, but was intensified and magnified x 1,000,000,000. My face flushed, my joints ached, my temples throbbed, my fingers tingled, my insides burned.
And... I lost it. I broke down and sobbed, and with snot running and tears flowing and mascara smearing all over my pillows, I called a good friend and said the three words a food writer is never supposed to say: I hate food.
[Actually, truth be told, there was a fourth word in there... an angry, angry two-syllable word... in between the "I" and the "hate," and I'm sure you can guess what it was.]
Because at that point, I honestly and truly hated food. Food could blow me. Food could go to hell. In that moment, I never wanted to look at food, shop for food, touch food, eat food, think about food, or write about food. I know, I know... those of us who write about food are aalllllwwaaayyys supposed to gush and love and emote sunshine, unicorns, and lollipops about every ingredient, every new discovery, showing awe, joy, and reverence for the simple pleasures of sustenance... but I just couldn't do it anymore.
It was bad enough that my cooking mojo was gone, but when my cooking mojo left, I feel like my writing went along with it. I had a hard time pulling together my recent post about pork, because I'd made it before my luck turned sour in the kitchen, and when it came time to write about that dish (which really was so amazingly delicious; I just wish the blog post could've done it justice), I was so angry at food I could barely string letters together to make words, let alone words to make sentences.
Losing my energy and drive around food was one thing... I knew I could get through that. But not being able to write AND getting glutened? That sent me over the edge. After failing at flipping a stupid over-easy egg, all I wanted was for something to taste good, and to eat well so that I'd be inspired to cook again. And realizing that something so minuscule, so molecular, so accidental as someone touching something with gluten, then handling my food could make me so sick? Fiona Apple couldn't have written or sung a song as angry and weary and angsty as I felt. I was raw. I felt like I was 13, screaming at my parents, "IT'S NOT FAIR!!! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!!!! I HATE YOU!!!!!! WWAAAAHHHHH!!!"
Someday, I'll write about how much it sucks to have celiac. While I'm relieved to know what made me progressively sick for a few years, I'm not one of those people who can be joyful or thankful about it or always find a silver lining. I'm pissed and bitter about the things I can no longer eat, and having celiac makes me feel like I'm a pain in the ass everywhere I go. I have to read every label and ask about every ingredient in restaurants, and make special requests and educate and apologize and answer questions, and it's exhausting. My friends are amazing, because they'll make an entire dinner party gluten-free when I'm on the guest list. And my chef friends bend over backwards to make me feel welcome (and NORMAL) in their restaurants when I'm there. But it's by no means easy to be always on the lookout, always hyper-aware, and always hoping that I can get through a meal that someone else cooked without being uncontrollably and embarrassingly sick an hour later.
So where am I going with all this?
I was thrilled not just to be able to have something other than food and writing to focus on these past few weeks, but I also was bolstered by YOUR support of the cause and of my ridiculous antics to get you guys to donate. Every comment, every email, every Twitter reply kept me sane during a time when I really thought I had no business writing this blog or anything about food, ever again. Yes, I know there are bigger problems in the world than my current inability to cook, or write, or eat. Believe me, I know that. What I guess I'm saying is it's actually a relief to be able to admit that I said (and meant) the words, "I hate food." Because I really did. Being inauthentic serves no one, and I feel like we've got an amazing and smart little community here, and I'm hoping I'm not alone in the losing-your-mojo-and-losing-your-cool-about-it thing. I sometimes have this weird misconception that I have to be perfect and 100% on my game when it comes to food, and when I'm not, I simply must find the humor in it. Not this time. And it felt good to let it all go.
What do you do when you lose your mojo... whether it's in the kitchen (professional or at home), at work, at home, on a project, in a creative endeavor, or anywhere? Are you patient? Do you soldier onward? Do you take a break? Do you rant? Scream? Cry? Regroup and move forward? Ignore it and pretend like nothing's wrong? Go for a walk? Blame someone else? Fake it? Burrow under a pile of blankets and watch bad TV? None of the above? All of the above?
I've spent the past two weeks watching movies, reading books (devouring them, actually), eating things other people have made me, and enjoying a really nice balance of solitude and the company of friends. I'm slowly working my way back into the kitchen. I made the scallion-potato cakes from Ad Hoc at Home, and they were good. Perhaps a roasted chicken is in my near future. Surely, an Alinea dish is around the corner. In fact, I've got a post in the works on rendering beef fat, because one of the Alinea recipes calls for it. And, if I can successfully oversee some fat melting in a pot, then maybe, possibly, perhaps... the mojo is back.
Up Next: Rendering Beef Fat
Read My Previous Post: The Big Finish