The recipe for a kitchen catastrophe

My first kitchen catastrophe didn’t involve any actual cooking.

I intended to cook a several-course Mexican meal from scratch as an apology to my family for being an especially sulky teenager one afternoon (nevermind that I hadn’t actually solo-cooked a single-course meal before). I soon had all the ingredients, only to discover I didn’t know how to “warm the skillet.” In a panic, I abandoned the whole meal and scattered the ingredients throughout the pantry. However clever I thought this might have been, the 5 lb. bag of cornmeal was my undoing, as it ended up being the clue that tipped my family off to the entire misadventure.

As I learned, successfully following a recipe isn’t just accumulating the ingredients in one place. But as I look at the 38 recipes, mostly in French, all in metric, spread out on my bed after this weeks-long trip to the south of France, it’s encouraging to see how my relationship with the recipe has changed.

During these past few weeks, I took 10 cooking classes. Six were in Montpellier, and featured a dinner and a dessert. Three classes were in Nice, two of which were patisserie. Then I took one in Lyon, an all-day market tour and cooking class. Before the trip, I could cook. I thought of myself more as a baker, but I’ve had a hand in Thanksgivings and Easters and other more casual occasions (plus a month-long dive into different egg dishes called I Love You Eggery Day). I just wanted to cook… better.

I didn’t set out for French cuisine, exactly, but more with the focus of using local ingredients to come up with a meal, rather than taking a recipe to the grocery store. On days off from class, I’d head to pop-up markets, or to the pecherie, and do my best to come up with something without the training wheels of internet recipes. I didn’t expect to become food fluent in a matter of weeks (as I did not become fluent in French, either, though I had fun), but in the same way that even a beginning runner can still get that runners high early on, I hoped that some gentle looseness and regular cooking in a different environment might have some encouraging results.

In plating squid for a dinner party of strangers and pan-frying salmon for a friend, in abandoning lofty plans because we only had a butter knife and no oven, in delaying and restarting dinners because of power outages, in arguing over the proper size for chopped bell peppers, and in half-following recipes to still tasty results, I found that looseness. From that looseness grew a willingness to cook and create and share, and with fast and fleeting friends in a new city, cooking and eating together made it feel like home.

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