Those early years, that multiple-megaton blast of responsibility no newlywed is ready for, the heft and pull of the yoke, the schedule scratching along like a Richter-scale needle in a 1970s earthquake movie. I found myself home in the afternoons with the time, so I cooked. We shared the duty for a while. I think the tipping point was the day I came home to a chicken in a pot, boiling on the stove. That's what we had, boiled chicken; the moment of discovery, right there… Bless her heart, she tried.
I don't mind. Most days I enjoy it. Cooking, done right, takes the worried mind to another place. It's an escape. That, and every time I burn or cut or mangle some of my flesh, I garner further evidence. "Look there," I say to whichever daughter silly enough to enter the kitchen at such times. "I bled for you again! Now go clean the cat box!"
I remember this one concoction from the early days - rice and whatever, with onions and hot-pepper powder, smothered in a bar-b-q sauce, baked at 375 until it looked ready. It was better than it sounds. The meals were simple then, unassuming, starchy, and cheap (funny how we're pulling back in that direction- good thing there's no inflation or we'd be in some real trouble).
Time moved on and so did my skills. I got skills now. Don't believe me? Come over for dinner. About three Thanksgivings ago I did the meal - eighteen people and some change. Spaghetti for fourteen teens, with salad, sides, and deserts? No prob. Intimate for two? How about lobster bisque, sautéed thin-cut pork chops with lightly glazed onion and caper glaze, followed by a crème brule' with just a hint of lemon? Don't like lemon? I do chocolate too. Oh how I love my butane kitchen torch! Just let me know a day in advance, I'll fix you something good.
A personal favorite is an early-summer Cajun deal: a shrimp-sausage jambalaya (has to have a deep-brown roux base or it's not jambalaya), hush-puppies, fruit bowl to cut the heat, and various other oddments that holler at me from the cookbook, with homemade heath-espresso ice cream for dessert. I can lose myself if the meal is involved enough. The kitchen is hot, the water's boiling, I've lost the skin on one of my fingers, and have little red marks on my arms from the grease. In that moment I am Hephaestus at the forge, and all is well in the world. Machinery, blades, steam, and open flame - what's not to like?
Mom was my first teacher. She didn't know it, but I was paying attention. I saw her use a recipe maybe a dozen times. Otherwise, she knew what she was doing. Others have helped along the way. There have been classes by people educated about such things. I learned some good tricks from them and was introduced to new recipes. And, as usual, the best teacher is experience - always is.
It's not all glorious. Some days at the grocery store I know exactly what I want. Dinner plans come to me as in a vision. I can almost smell the end-result, and so I slide the silver cart through the tides of old women and other grizzled home-cooks to the ingredient locations, led by the memorized floor-plans that shine like a magic map.
Sometimes it isn't easy. I'm managing three other palates on a regular basis. Me? I'll eat whatever. But the audience is a different matter. I have two pickies and a one not-so-picky to contend with. And they're picky over different things. Nor do I claim to bat a thousand. No one does. I sometimes only manage to make edible dinners - they just don't taste like much but at least I tried.
Many days the magic is not there. I stand beneath the piped-music, staring at the red-wall of for-sale snack crackers, without a clue. Annoyed people move around me. On these days I gather necessities first. Dog-food, detergents, tampons (yes, I'm that confident in my masculinity), maybe a new round of toothbrushes because that's the kind of guy I am. I draw on my experiences, cast about the refrigerated ether, and gather what I may. But, by golly, dinner is made.
This is my parable of the writer. Learn as you go. No one starts out truly knowing what they are doing. Some days, inspiration shines like a new Kroger card. Some days, it's just a putty-colored tub of crap. You know it and so does everyone else at the table. At least the dogs are always thankful. But you keep going, day after day. The new writer learns. There's a world to explore. And if it sucks the first time, make it again just to be sure.
After a while, a level of confidence arrives. I think that's when the fears and the recipes stop being as important as they once were. You try new combinations, go less by exact measurement and more by what feels right (or maybe smells). Then, if you feel like sharing, you know other people are going to like it too.