The protagonist of any good story will face conflict, and my first couple days in the kitchen revealed several potential villains — arch- or otherwise — in the story I’m trying to write for myself.
One conflict is the trouble I have taking advice from people who are smarter, more talented, and more experienced than me. The way my wife learns to do something is by having someone show her how to do it and then doing it herself. The way she teaches others how to do a thing is by doing some of it for them and then letting them do the rest. This is also, interestingly, one way Kate shows affection. She gets it from her dad. In his house, the center of family life is the table. He taught himself to cook in college by working his way through “The Art of French Cooking.” (This was at least thirty years before blogging about such a project would lead Amy Adams to play him on the big screen.) Now Kate’s dad, a house builder, gets the keenest pleasure from showing his loved ones the best way to cut a lime, or how to caramelize the top of a crème brûlée with a blowtorch.
On Edutopia.com’s multiple intelligences self-quiz, I come up as a 100% linguistic learner. This means I learn best by hearing or reading how to do a thing, trying to do it myself, failing utterly, then gradually improving. I asked Kate (smarter, better, more experienced) to mentor me in the kitchen, but our teaching and learning styles clashed. By the time our friends Dave and Kristialyn came over for dinner on Sunday, Kate and I were arguing about chopped garlic and why the hell we don’t have a garlic press anymore — a topic about which Kate is surprisingly sensitive.
Another conflict is the temptation to focus too much on how far I have to go rather than on how far I’ve come. I spent more time in the kitchen the last four days than I have in the last four months. I made grilled steak and green salad (recipes adapted from Alice Waters’s “In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart”), french toast from “The Joy of Cooking”, and broiled kale with a fried egg and toast from the Orangette blog. The resulting dishes had redeeming qualities, but all I could taste were their shortcomings: I should have tenderized the steak, the dressing was too oily, and the bread I used for the french toast was too hard.
The broiled kale dish, though, had potential. Great recipe. Country sourdough from The Bread Board in Falls City. Kale and eggs from our CSA, Forest Meadow Farm. I added turnip tops and garlic given to us by a neighbor whose garden must be doing much better than ours. I also replaced the Parmigiano Reggiano in Orangette’s recipe with a raw milk Brindisi Fontina from the Willamette Valley Cheese Company — a cheese with a taste and texture so memorable that writing about it four days later makes my mouth water.
But it was while preparing the broiled kale dish that I saw the face of my true nemesis: the fried egg. Alas, there is only one way to successfully fry an egg and at least three ways to ruin it: getting shell pieces in the pan, breaking the yoke in the pan, and cooking the egg too long. I fried four eggs on Sunday; I made all of those mistakes at least once and one of them twice.
I cook simple eggs on toast all the time for Molly, and I always, always ruin the egg. The very definition of a story is a character working to overcome conflict to get what he wants. There is, then, nothing to do but press on, study the enemy, know myself, and to keep failing utterly…until, finally, heroically, cathartically, I slide a perfect fried egg onto a piece of buttered toast, and serve a breakfast of champions.