Several years ago, I faced the truth. I was a hopeless failure at cooking. Perhaps I was too lazy. Maybe I lacked native talent. But what really sealed my fate was my inability to follow directions. When faced with instructions or applications of any kind, I melt down. I start to hyperventilate when the cashier at the grocery store hands me a rewards card application to fill out. I’ve been known to giggle and cry over a simple schematic of a battery charger. I perceive instructions as a test that I have already failed before I even begin.
So imagine my delight when I got a book called, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler from a friend this Christmas. Instead of giving tons of recipes with ingredients I’ve never heard of, the book shares a global philosophy of cooking – one in which every bit of food is used for something (don’t throw out those broccoli ends, they want to be boiled in soup!) and anyone can cook a meal if they can boil water. In fact, the first chapter is titled “How to Boil Water”. Finally! A book that doesn’t presuppose that I know how to boil water. Because I don’t. Didn’t – before I read the book, that is. How, for example, was I to know that water always wants to be salted?
In the book, the food is always telling Tamar what it wants. Most often it wants to be drizzled in olive oil. Which I consider a bit of a no brainer, since I could probably wolf down a bottle cap if it was drizzled in olive oil, especially if it was nestled on a cracker and topped with shaved cheese. Tamar likes to shave a “hard cheese” over things that are already drizzled. That said, she does seem to get more surprising demands from her food. And, quite often, the food tells her that it wants to be the center of attention. Especially Mayonnaise who, apparently, has felt much maligned for years. Also – who knew – eggs confess that they love turning light fare into an entire meal.
Tamar’s enchanting prose and her anthropomorphization of food makes me feel like I’ve fallen down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. Now, instead of the kitchen seeming like scorched earth where nothing survives, it’s a magical place where food talks and boiling water is an art form. AND I don’t need instructions, just common sense and sensitivity toward my food.
First off, I boiled and salted water for a few days tasting it at different temperatures. Tamar writes that Julia Child recommended that cooks do this to get used to the different tastes of water. I couldn’t tell any difference in taste really, but I did develop a love for boiling. For days, I boiled, salted, and tasted while wearing a cute checkered apron that I bought just for the purpose. I felt very continental. The kids would implore me to help with their homework, and I would have to tell them, “Not now, sweeties, I’m boiling water and you know that it doesn’t want to be left alone.”
Once I mastered the boiling, I advanced to slipping the vegetables into the water – not plopping them violently, because they don’t want that. According to Tamar, most vegetables don’t want to sit in each other’s water either, but you should still save it for your pasta. I boiled some carrots and then used the carrot water for spaghetti. I couldn’t taste the carrots on the spaghetti but simply knowing that there was a tinge of carrot essence on my pasta made me feel like a roaring success. Already, I was blending different tastes from different food families. Without, I remind you, following a single recipe. I simply boiled, salted, gently eased the carrots into the water, removed them with a slotted spoon and then added spaghetti to the carrot water. Tamar loves the slotted spoon, by the way. It’s gentle on your vegetables and it doesn’t waste any pre-boiled salted and flavored water.
The second chapter is on eggs and I was surprised to discover how much I’ve underestimated them all these years. Place an egg drizzled in oil on top of anything and you have jazz. This excited me to no end because in all of my domestic endeavors, I am searching for that little detail that will make something look fantastic but will require virtually no effort on my part. Tamar claims that a hard-boiled egg can do the trick. But I wanted something a little fancier. Something that could fool potential dinner guests into thinking that I know what I’m doing.
Enter the elegant, deceptively simple poached egg. My pulse quickened as Tamar described easing a poached egg on the top of an ordinary salad (drizzling it, of course) and it then becoming part of the salad dressing when the yolk was broken.
Genius. Fucking genius. I could throw (not “throw”, sorry “rest”)…I could rest a poached egg on top of pretty much anything and make it sing. According to Tamar, poaching an egg was simple. All I had to do was simmer my salted water in a pot, add some vinegar, and slide my egg into it from a cup. In about four minutes, the egg would be done and it would want to come out. I would ease my slotted spoon under it, raise it from the simmering water, and rest it on my salad or rice or pasta or toast. I envisioned myself mastering the poached egg so well that I could spontaneously invite someone over for lunch. No matter how slim the available fare in my refrigerator might be, I would add that poached egg and dazzle my friend.
I tied my apron around my waist, turned the dial on the radio to a classical station, and set to work. I laid out the pan, the vinegar, the salt, two eggs, drizzling oil, the slotted spoon, and the paper towel that would absorb water from the perfect eggs before they enhanced my prepared arugula salad.
Ten minutes later, the kitchen looked like I had tried to poach my egg in the eye of a tornado. Pools of water had collected all over the linoleum floor. Pans were strewn over the counter and even the floor. Salad fixings had scattered. The window that I had opened when the smoke detector went off let in a cold wind that rustled the unfurled roll of paper towels festooning the disaster area. The radio emitted only static and I could hear my children yelling from the living room – was it safe to move around the apartment now?
Leaning against the sink, I brushed my vinegar soaked bangs out of my eyes with the back of my hand. Even two weeks later, I would be unable to piece together the sequence of events that led to the devastation. I do know that very early on my eggs didn’t want to float; instead they wanted to adhere to the bottom of the pan like it was their only safe haven. No amount of nudging, prodding, or finally chipping, could pry them loose.
This setback did not, however, dissuade me from my poached egg fantasy. For several mornings in a row, I would shuffle the children off to school and return to my kitchen (The boys had made it clear that they didn’t want to be around during future attempts to poach). Like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Faith, I went through the same steps, believing that today would be the day. And every failure only stiffened my resolve. On the third day, I had to throw out my best pan when I couldn’t remove the layer of burnt egg whites hardened on the bottom of it. I bought more scouring powder and moved onto another pan, then another. I reread the egg chapter and looked up poaching eggs on Youtube. Again, the Youtube man made it look so simple. He promised that if I did everything the way he did, I’d have a goddamned poached fucking egg.
A week and a half in, I bought a non-stick pan and turned a corner. The egg still wanted desperately to stick – but it couldn’t. VICTORY! Small victory. I still broke the yolk sending a ribbon of hardening yellow goo into my simmering vinegar water.
The day that I poached my first egg started out just like the others. There was nothing overtly remarkable about it. Certainly nothing that portended my greatest domestic achievement ever -- even besting that golden week in August of 1997 when I replaced a plug on the hall lamp, patched a pair of Pat’s jeans, and harvested basil from the plant I had grown from seedlings. The sky outside the kitchen window was overcast without rainbows or shafts of light touching the earth. When I retrieved the egg from the refrigerator it was as cold to the touch as those that had gone before. The classical station on the radio played at the same volume as it had for weeks. And the music was not interrupted by news of a mysterious meteor whizzing past us in space. Yes, it was a day like all the others.
Except for the result of my solitary endeavor.
Perhaps I let the water simmer longer than I had before. Maybe I added more vinegar. Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply my turn in the long line of seekers yearning for greatness. We know many of their names: Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mike Nesmith’s mother. But there are others in that line whose names we don’t know. I was one of those. A domestic warrior who had finally, finally, finally had her day.
I eased the poached egg onto my salad, drizzled it with just the right amount of olive oil, and sat down to eat.