Thursday, May 26, 2011

And a Pinch of Reckless Abandon

When I announced that I would be writing a memoir, I tried to encourage my friends and family to use my upcoming birthday as an opportunity to suck up, and some of them totally took the hint.  One friend (who, from this point on, shall be referred to as my “exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend") came up with the perfect gift idea: a one-time cooking class at the Whole Foods Culinary Center.

For the past year or so, I’ve been teaching myself to cook and have been forced to rely on vague recipe instructions, gut instinct, and a whole lot of trial and error.  I make it a point to approach every new culinary challenge with enthusiasm, confidence, and a pinch of reckless abandon.  “Hmm, I’ve never cut into a mango before ... What the hell, I’ll just slice through the center and see what happens.”  “Wait, how many chilies am I supposed to use?  They don’t look that hot.  Maybe if I touch one and then rub my eye....”  Prior to the age of twenty-eight, I had only ever used a microwave and a can opener, so if you think about it, my progress has been staggering.  Still, a little formal training couldn’t hurt.

When my exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend told me that she was signing me up for a cooking class, I was expecting something along the lines of “Cooking for Dummies” or “Name That Kitchen Utensil!”  So you can imagine my surprise when she sent me the link to “Advanced Vegetarian Cooking: How to Prepare a Seven-Course Meal Made Entirely of Tofu.”  (In addition to being exceedingly beautiful, she also has a habit of grossly overestimating my talents.)  I read the course description and tried to imagine myself whipping up a tofu mousse in a semi-competitive setting with strangers eyeballing my technique.  Yeah, um, ... no.  Better to start with the basics: Knife Skills 101.

My husband can’t stand to watch me wielding a knife.  Even though it takes me a full forty-five minutes to dice an onion, I still manage to appear hasty and reckless – just one slip away from losing a finger.  It would be a real shame if I did cut my finger off, because my hands are one of my best features.  Thick, sturdy frames run in my family.  You’ll never hear the words “graceful” or “delicate” being used to describe me.  Suited for manual labor?  Yes.  Graceful and delicate?  No.  Yet, somehow, I ended up with these remarkably long, thin, dainty fingers – ideal for playing the piano and picking olives out of glass jars. They’re the hands of an elegant lady, and they serve as a lovely distraction from my slouched shoulders and big, clumsy feet.  It’s imperative that I keep them intact.

You’ll be happy to know that after taking Knife Skills 101, I am now an expert knife handler.  I can break down an entire pineapple before you can say “pineapple.”  I can dice an onion into pieces that are so small, they’re practically invisible to the naked eye.  I can julienne a carrot into matchstick strips, with no two strips the same size (I told the instructor that I preferred my carrots that way because “same is boring”). But the most important thing I learned was to always have super sharp knives.  I had to ask how exactly one might go about sharpening their knives, and when the chef gave me the address of a place that would do it for me, I made it my top priority.

When I arrived at the knife-sharpening place, I noticed that it was guarded by a stone bulldog wearing chainmail armour.  That was my first clue that this was no Williams-Sonoma.  Inside, the walls were covered with machetes and swords and bowie knives and ninja-training targets.  I handed my knife set over to a burly, tattooed man, and while he was busy sharpening my knives, I was left to peruse the display cases filled with daggers and brass knuckles (and rubber knuckles “for practice”).  On one wall, there was a poster of a terrified woman leaning against a target with knives surrounding her, and next to the poster was a sign that read, “We Offer Knife and Tomahawk-Throwing Classes.”

And so goes the life of a dilettante: I go to get my kitchen knives sharpened so that I can become an acclaimed vegan chef, and five minutes later, I am ready to dedicate myself fully to tomahawk-throwing.  I don’t like violence per se, but in movies and on TV, being able to throw a deadly weapon with stunning accuracy usually ends the fight before it even begins.  Since there weren’t any other customers, I thought about asking the guy if he would teach me to throw a tomahawk right then and there ... but I chickened out. Last summer, I learned how to shoot a gun and almost hit a target six feet away, but this place was way more intimidating than the gun range.  I guess I’ll have to stick to dicing onions until I can muster the courage to go back.

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