I recently went through a week where I made a new-to-me recipe every single night. I didn’t realize I’d done this in my meal plan until about Wednesday, when I noticed I was continually looking at my phone for reference, as opposed to all the recipes that have become standard in my rotation over the years which I’ve memorized and adapted.
It could have been a case of my subconscious telling me, via meal plan, that it was sick of our days all looking so very much the same. Or maybe all the foodie people I follow on Instagram posted especially good recipes that week. It was probably just a fluke. I don’t know. I guess I needed something different in the routine of the day. I cooked my way through a Thai chicken curry and a simple Mexican chicken and rice skillet and a black bean soup which we ate with a generous amount of tortilla chips. (The kids preferred the tortilla chips solo.)
It occurred to me while making one of these meals how easy this came to me. I like cooking. I regularly pour over books about food, follow a ridiculous amount of those aforementioned food-related accounts on Instagram, tend to enjoy meal planning, and spend a good amount of time each day thinking about food. I’ve made dinner almost every night of the week since my husband and I were newlyweds. Then, it was because we didn’t have much money for eating out. Most nights I found a way to turn chicken breasts and onions and bell peppers into stir fries or fajitas or rice bowls or pasta.
Fridays were, and still are, the exception. I almost always take a day off each week. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked on a Friday night,” I heard my grandma say once when she was well into her 80s. That sounded to me like a pretty good #lifegoal. Before we had children, or really before we had our third and were outnumbered by children, we used to go out on Friday nights.
When our twins were born, they followed us along to Friday night dinners. We ate at 4:30 or 5:00, in near-empty restaurants, before we needed to be home for the bedtime chaos to begin. We’d request a booth and they’d rest next to us in their carseats. As they grew older they sat with us — their tiny-for-their-age bodies swallowed by cavernous high chairs, held up by the blankets we brought with to stuff around them. I’d order grilled chicken and broccoli, which we chopped up small, and they ate by the tiny fistful.
Now we don’t usually eat out on Fridays. Instead, we order takeout after the kids are in bed. (At home date nights: highly recommended. Mostly because you can eat Thai food in your sweatpants and have no need for mascara.)
The point being that Friday nights aside, the vast majority of evenings find me in the kitchen.
I realized, while standing over the stove, that I can do this not just because I follow food blogs and don’t have to Google how to poach a chicken and can adapt recipes on the fly. Because now, if dinner turns out to be a total flop, I can afford to throw it out and begin again. (Though for the record: that week they all turned out delicious.) I mean, because I’m an Enneagram One I will feel awful—terrible—just like I did at Christmastime when I made a pan of cranberry bars that somehow never baked through quite right, even though I’ve made them every Christmas for almost a decade now. The soggy bars—the entire pan of them—went straight into the trash. I’ll moan and gnash my teeth at the waste and the thought of the people who grew this food only for me to throw it away. And truly, it’s not the end of the world. If all else fails, we can grab takeout or make grilled cheese. The five of us don’t need to worry about going hungry if it turns out awful.
I recently took up knitting and was struck by this same thing. I could knit for awhile and make a mistake and the worst thing that happened was having to unravel it all to begin again. It was a safe space to fail. In that way, it reminded me of being in the kitchen.
And this feels like such a gift. In a world where failure is frowned upon, where the stakes seem so high for virtually everything else, there’s something to be said for taking a chance on a recipe, if you can. The world isn’t going to burn because I overcooked the chicken. My kids will survive if they don’t eat a vegetable with dinner for the third night in a row because I know they’ll eventually eat some broccoli again.
In a life where everything feels so high-stakes: work, parenting, marriage, social distancing, social justice, politics, where carelessness in our choices could mean actual life-and-death, there’s something to be said for being able to take a chance without any major consequences. I think we all need a safe place to fail, to drop a stitch, to burn the cookies, where the biggest calamity is to start over and try again. When our lives, particularly now, are so consumed with mothering and caregiving and so many decisions, we can stop to whisk some eggs, pick up a set of knitting needles, or swirl some paint and know we might create something beautiful.