Fall at Love Like Salt
This article was first written for Where Women Cook. Sadly this publication is no longer being printed, but you can find older copies.
I wish I could say that my summers are filled with days exploring the Northwest ‘s glorious forests and tide pools with my 5 and 8 year old. I wish I could say we go swimming everyday and we barbecue with friends on the lake. That my children go to bed with wind chapped lips, sunburned and dirty. With grass in their toes, muscles sore with scrapes and bruises from running from adventure to adventure, with sleepy brains dreaming of wildflowers and streams, berry picking and crawdads.
But the reality is that our summers are a twelve week long slumber party where we might get dressed around noon after 5 hours of YouTube slime tutorials and Minecraft. We empty box upon box of sweet pastel cereal into bowls that I had to rinse with tepid water that morning because I forgot to run the dishwasher again. It’s lazy and unstructured and always chaotic. I dial back on client work to focus on the kids, which is scary with a new business. If I’m not always growing, it feels like the fragile little thing I started will die forever.
So it’s no mystery I cling to the first week of September like a drowning man to a life raft. Public school creates a structure I can’t and relieves me of my most important and challenging duty: watching over these little people and trying to make them learn things they don’t want to learn. Of course, I admire the psychedelic leaves, crisp apples and blackberries in the alleys. But even more I love to stretch my soul into a day of tending to my business with no countless interruptions and sing it back to life. It’s my silent partner, my dreamland, my third child that tolerates three months of neglect a year.
But with this needed structure comes a new challenge: busyness. Gone are the lazy days of sleeping in. Now it’s time to be up at dawn, coffee in hand, camera battery on the charger. I have to schedule the activities and reach out for new clients. My twelve week pajama party has turned into a hectic schedule of play dates, homework, trapeze lessons, birthday parties and calendars that look like an unending game of Sudoku.
It also means I am back to cooking and shooting regularly. I get up, get kids ready, walk them to school, come home, cook and shoot, clean up, get kids from school, do the after school stuff and suddenly at 5:30 the panic sets in that we have nothing to eat. Like floating in an ocean of salt water without a drop to drink: I just cooked for 6 hours straight and we have nothing for dinner. I have a fridge filled with groceries, but for tomorrow’s shoot. My compost bin is stuffed with half cooked meat and undercooked unsalted veggies in coated in oil to make them look glossy, vibrant and fresh. My sink is filled with dirty dishes and I need to go the grocery store and all I really want is a bottle of wine. I don’t even need a glass, just hand me a bottle of rosé with a screw cap because a corkscrew is too much trouble.
And I have a confession, friends. Don’t tell anyone, but…I really hate cooking.
I can style food all day long. I‘ve always admired the wrinkled textures of savoy cabbage or the fractal design of Romanesco, the shocking pink of beetroots. But cooking it? Like making it TASTE good? That is a task I prefer to leave to the professionals.
So how is it I became the household chef? If you don’t mind, let me take this story way back. Back before I had kids in school. Before I had this dream business. Way back to standing in a bathroom one September morning holding a pregnancy test with the faintest of blue lines. Feeling the bloom of powerful motherly love, I told this barely formed human, “I am going to learn to cook for you. You will be able to say ‘my mom is THE BEST cook’. That is the gift I promise you.”
And I did. I watched hours of cooking shows, I bought dozens of pretty cookbooks and read all the blogs. For a while mostly everything I made was terrible, I had no sense of seasoning or timing. Learning to cook was scary and vulnerable for me because if you don’t know the basics like what a pork butt is, a simple meat counter is Satan’s playground. How could I prove my coolness to the tattooed butcher with a screaming kid on my hip and decision paralysis? Then I put my work and soul on a plate to have it judged and critiqued. But I persisted and I can proudly say I am a woman who can cook. But do I like it? That’s kind of asking a lot.
Oh yes, the baby I made a promise to so long ago? She ‘s eight and hates food, especially anything I make. You know what they say? If you want to make God laugh, make plans? Yeah, that. 100%
But a family still needs a cook, despite my protests. I tried to pre-prep meals (takes too much discipline), menu plan (a logic problem so hard, they should add it to college applications), batch cook for the freezer (spoiler warning: for this you actually need freezer space) and I attempted to master my nemesis I call The Crockpot of Tasteless Glop. Finally I developed a system that more or less works: simple, multipurpose recipe elements that can be prepped ahead and used in multiple meals over the week.
I always feel better knowing that I have a sauce, a dough or spice blend on hand that I can toss with the randomly selected ingredients I threw in my grocery cart. It makes using seasonal produce a breeze because I can adapt my meals to use what is fresh and cheap. It frees my mind for more important decisions, like the wine I’m going to drink that night to get me through the kids’ homework. Did you know that an oaky chardonnay goes great with two pages of common core math? Well now you do.
The benefit of simple staples like these is that you can really build your food knowledge. For hating cooking so much, I love the science of it. When I make a Three Ingredient Tomato Sauce I can really assess the flavors of different tomatoes. With my Salty AF Roast Chicken I have learned what kind of chickens I should and shouldn’t buy. There isn’t anywhere for the ingredients to hide. And I learned it’s not always about the most expensive and precious product.
No matter our method, our meals are dependent on our time and place. When we combine our locations, our kitchens, our skills and our taste buds, we get something unique: cooking that taste like us. Like mom, like dad, like a best friend, like the first day of school, like the first crisp evening. They taste like home. And even if I hate cooking them, I’m always glad that I did.