When I moved into an apartment complex for graduate students, I no longer had access to cafeteria food. I was on my own for all meals, a terrifying concept for someone whose repertoire consisted of canned soup, fried bologna sandwiches and fried eggs. I relied on things that came in cans and boxes, food that required little preparation, minimizing failure. There were times when I yearned for better food, but I was on full scholarship due to financial hardship, so there was no money for eating out.
Marriage thrust me into new responsibilities, one of them being to cook dinner five nights a week. I relied on my old standbys even though I really wanted to do better.
One time a soup can had a deal: for a certain numbers of labels I could get a cookbook for the cost of shipping. It didn’t take me long to save up the requisite number and send them off. When the cookbook arrived, all the pictures looked inviting.
One of the first things I decided to try was a squash stuffed with ground beef and rice. It required advanced preparation. The night before I gouged out the squash seeds and mixed together the rest of the ingredients. We had been given a set of dishes. I used a square one to arrange the stuffed squash, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.
All the next day I dreamed of the meal I would present to my new husband. As soon as I got home, I turned on the oven. I changed clothes while waiting for it to reach the proper temperature. With excitement and anticipation, I removed the wrap and put the dish in the oven.
Imagine my horror when the dish cracked! I didn’t know that the dish couldn’t go from the refrigerator to oven. It was an off-brand, not the advertised one. The meal was ruined.
I dreaded telling my husband. After all, it was my responsibility to fix dinner and now there was nothing left. Tears streamed down my face as I waited anxiously for him to arrive.
This was when I learned what an awesome man my husband is. He didn’t get angry. Not at the ruined meal or the broken dish. Instead he gave me a big hug, helped clean up the oven and then prepared a wonderful meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I relied on that cookbook for years. I leaned to make an awesome meatloaf with cream of mushroom soup as a base. I made a nice pot roast using onion soup, in the electric skillet. I experimented with baking chicken in cream of chicken soup and kept on trying new things. Our family always had a warm meal that was edible.
Because of that cookbook my confidence grew. The pages got stained and wrinkled, but I could still read the directions! Even today it still has a special place in the kitchen, even though I no longer do the cooking.
There were other disasters. My husband makes delicious fudge. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try. Mine ended up being chocolate sauce.
Then there was turkey soup. I had seen my husband take the carcass and turn it into broth. I seemed like something I should be able to do. I chopped the veggies and put it in the pot. I followed the steps carefully. My broth was horrible! It tasted more like dirty dish water than soup.
My husband likes lamb. My family never ate it, so I knew nothing about what cuts are the best, but I had a recipe. Once again I followed directions. It smelled okay. He ate it, but I couldn’t stand the taste and neither could any of our kids.
I learned to stick to the basics. Try nothing exotic or that had too many steps or ingredients. Roast beef, chicken and ground beef were my go-to meats. As long as I could cook it in broth or soup or mix in something to keep it tender, I did fine. I discovered a range of things that came out good in a crock pot, such as a turkey leg or barbeque beef.
I bought boxes of pizza dough mix and painstakingly kneaded it. I mushed it out and then covered it with whatever ingredients we had on hand. It wasn’t as good as store-bought, but it was satisfying.
Cooking requires a certain degree of skill, but mostly an understanding of how food works together. What spices go with what meats and what sauces add flavor to tougher cuts. How to blend, chop and combine ingredients into palatable dishes. And patience. Lots and lots of patience, something which I don’t possess.
Cooking days are behind me, a true blessing. But when I look back on my earlier failures, it is not with despair, but with more of a sense of accomplishment. Thanks to my husband’s kind support, I tried again and again, learning along the way what I could do, not just what I couldn’t.
Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.