Being the Queen of Cooking — by Smoke Detector

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What does that title indicate about my culinary talents?

In my highly imaginative brain, I’m a creative, elegant cook successfully whipping up new recipes on a whim. Gorgeous dishes are served with an artistic flourish, the flavors indescribably sublime. Dinner guests weep as they depart, my enticing desserts still shocking and delighting their taste buds. At the door, friends beg for a fresh invitation to return — please, please, they ask.

In the actively zany place that is my mind, I am also 5’7”, weigh-in at a lithe 120 pounds, have long flowing auburn tresses (instead of this out-of-control-at-any-length mess that is resolutely unmanageable and multiple au naturale shades from strawberry blonde to white to silver to black to — you get the idea), and dress in perfectly styled, soft draping skirts, and tank tops that show off my toned biceps and triceps.

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I live a life full of happy illusions.

Like my mother, I’m a better baker than a chef. Family lore had it that Dad’s stomach was cast iron. This wasn’t from two years of army food. Nope, it was the result of chowing on Mom’s early marital cooking attempts. Her mother taught her well in the area of desserts, but main courses? Not so much. Plus, Dad grew up on a farm, which means I never tasted a non-shoe-leather-crisp pork chop until college. His mother dictated that any dish comprised of pig must be cooked to sheer dryness before considered safe to eat.

Although I no family member succumbed to Trichinosis, pork at the table equal pork overcooked. I assume this is why I still avoid swine-inclusive meals.

But for Mom’s ability to produce the lightest coconut cream pie, dozens of varieties of savory cookies, and his treasured, time-consuming gobs, Dad might have stayed bean-pole skinny throughout his life.

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Cooking instructions puzzle me

When you give me any instructions, be precise. I prefer 1, 2, 3 itemized steps and you want to pretend I’m in fifth grade. This goes for learning software, building deck furniture, and planting vegetable seeds. Directions have to be orderly and simple for me to get through them without my typical over-analyzing — always (im)balanced by my speed-reading.

In baking you follow specific rules of alchemy or end up with hockey-puck cinnamon rolls. Those were a rare failure as well as the time I tried to healthy-up Mom’s cookie recipe resulting in cannonball-consistent Snickerdoodles. Alex gave them the old college try before I dumped them in the garbage with a thud. They will be found, in tact, in a landfill in 2081.

The precision of baking is conveyed perfectly in a recipe for gluten free English Muffins from TheSpruce. You must raise the dough overnight, you must add baking soda right before baking, you must … you get the idea. The must-wording works for me.

Which means that my first problem with cooking is the unfortunate fact that there is leeway to be creative. Cooking instructions are not always specific. An early attempt at cooking a vegetarian dinner had me calling Jackie, “What do they mean, ‘roughly chop the onion?’ Am I supposed to throw it around the kitchen a few times first?” If you want that onion minced, diced, or sliced, be definitive. Don’t leave it open to a writer’s interpretation.

Back to that creativity issue, in cooking you can adjust the amounts with a little of this, a little of that … a tad more of another. You have options of different olive oils or sunflower oil or avocado oil or toss some peanut oil in for a change. With cookies and cakes, adding too much baking powder or soda provides bad results.

We each have natural talents and those we can learn

Even though I enjoy the inventive aspect of a little of this and a tad of that, cooking refuses to unveil itself as an inherent skill. Writing comes naturally. Poking fun at myself is an innate part of my DNA. Weeding a garden into submission comes naturally. Some people cook with absolute intuition and ingenuity. My envy of them knows no bounds.

I didn’t start experimenting with cooking until the late 1990s. I’m not sure what I lived on prior to that, but I survived. At my home in Red Lodge, Montana, it was easy fun to throw together a potluck or dinner party for a handful of friends and try my prowess with a new recipe — always with the caveat: If it’s inedible, we’ll order pizza.

Then I spent six months living with Jackie and her husband and I had to earn my keep somehow, didn’t I? Those wintertime meals of 2009 were often a case of me prepping things for John, aka Griller-Man, or the usual cook, Jackie, to assume responsibility for finishing. But now and then I was the cook fridge-to-table. I fared mostly well. Which would make you think that in my new home with Alex, I’d be making amazing meals in this roomy, well-appointed kitchen, right?

Uh huh. Not so much.

Before the Instant Pot entered my life

There I was, once upon a time making turkey meatballs for Alex in the Emeril skillet. I don’t eat them, but he likes them on a sandwich. I had Ninochka playing. Billed as, “[Greta] Garbo laughs,” it is a favorite vintage film and a delightful story about people finding their right lives — a lesson I love. If you don’t understand the importance of the blurb, Ms. Garbo was known for her serious, dramatic roles. When she finally laughed in a movie, it changed everything.

If only I had owned the Instant Pot then. I could have done things differently. I would have turned it to sauté (yes, buttons with names on them work wonders for me), tossed in garlic and onion, smelled those delicious aromas, and set the meatballs for the perfect browning time.

Emeril was not so helpful.

I knew Greta’s big laughter scene was about to start. The anticipation of a joke about to erupt was too much. The olive oil was heating, the meatballs were browning…. Laughing often distracts us, doesn’t it?

Smoke detectors don’t always go off soon enough

I was enjoying listening to Ninotchka, relishing the deep tones of Garbo’s voice. The oil sputtered, the meatballs browned. Methodically, I flipped them around and over and around and over. It was going well until Garbo laughed and I spun from the stove to re-play that scene and realized the entire kitchen, dining, and living rooms were full of smoke just as, you got it, the detector went off.

It was not pretty.

I had been concentrating so intently on the skillet, on Greta’s dialogue, on the pending eruption of laughter, that I never noticed the sizzling in the pan had changed to smoke and expanded to fill the air.

All the air.

What to do first? Kill the alarm before Alex dashed in from washing his car or the neighbors heard it and called the fire department and why hadn’t I opened the windows before I started cooking? After all, it was a beautiful summer’s day.

It struck me that the house is full of original paintings by Alex’s mother.

I removed the pan from the stove, shut off the burner, and spun to see Alex standing there in a haze of gray vapors, laughing so hard he could barely contain the shaking of his broad shoulders. Dubbing me the Cooking-by-Smoke-Detector-Queen, he killed the whining blare of the alarm, opened the windows, turned on the a/c fan … and kindly sampled a meatball, commenting that it was delicious.

What a kind soul.

Culinary bliss at our house?

Not so much.

For a while, things went well in our kitchen. Then there was the Pad Thai episode. I tried a new way of heating sesame oil and it splattered everywhere, blowing up the entire kitchen. The Pad Thai was edible, but after dinner not only did I have to clean the pots and pans, I had to wash the floor, wipe down the stove, clean the wooden cupboards.

There are time — like with Jackie growing up — that I don’t question why Alex “lets” me live here, I question why he lets me live.

I decided to stick with baking and let Alex do the inventive cooking, which he is flawlessly good at. But like the notion that I’m that tall, svelte, beautifully coiffed and attired red-head, some ideas are hard to let go of.

MusingsFromaRedhead.com. Author of The Writer’s Travel Journal — for your adventures. Essayist of humor, grief, & family — they go together.

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