Cooking for Beginners
Not hard. Impossible. My next goal is to make banana bread. It's one of my favorites. Plus, it smells good and tastes so lovely when fresh from the oven. In theory.
I've heard that cooking can be a meditative experience, so I get a meditative cookbook: The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown, a Buddhist student who became a priest and the head cook at Zen Mountain Center in California. The book hasn't been out of print since it was first published in 1970. The Washington Post calls it "the bible for bread baking." As I read through the recipe, it looks simple enough. "It would be even better," I think, with some cinnamon. "I'll add a dash—surely a little cinnamon won't hurt." But wait; Celia told me to follow the recipe exactly. I close the cap on the bottle but don't put it back on the shelf: obstinacy. I eye the nutmeg, which is also not on the list of ingredients, and question the lemon zest, which is. "Would it matter that much," I wonder, "if I just add a little cinnamon?"
Mulling it over in the way a gambler takes a moment to convince herself that yes, she could win it all back with just one more bet, I flip through the book. In the foreword, Brown writes: "Recipes are only a guide, a skeletal framework, to be fleshed out according to your nature and desire. Your life, your love, will bring these recipes into full creation. This cannot be taught. You already know. So plunge in: cook, love, feel, create." A baking Zen priest after my own heart! I'll bet Brown would be okay with my making a slight change to his recipe. Or he might tell me my mind needs to be trained, because I add the cinnamon, the nutmeg, and some apple butter to the bread.
"This is nice," Nathan says, taking one bite. "What is it?"
"Banana bread," I tell him.
"Hmmm," he says. Not "Mmmm," "Hmmm." He sets down the slice. "Are there any bananas in it?"
I don't know what went wrong," I say to Celia the next day. I relive it all: the seemingly innocent addition of the cinnamon, the escalation to the nutmeg, the mania of the apple butter. In retrospect, it feels like a baking blackout—I had no idea I'd gone so far off the rails until my banana bread had become something else entirely. And not something good. (Day after day, it went untouched by my usually baked-goods-addicted husband.)
I puzzle over the fact that I felt compelled to "improve" on the banana bread recipe before I'd even discovered how it was supposed to taste. And then, slowly, I begin to understand: Maybe the problem was that I wasn't trying to make banana bread at all; I was trying to make a wife.
Married less than a year, Nathan and I are very proud of each other. Sometimes I think we're stunned by each other, or at least I am by him. "Look, there's my husband!" I find myself thinking when I see him across a room. "Isn't she beautiful?" he'll say when introducing me to friends. But on the days when I don't feel like such a prize, I still want to be worthy of his adoration. I want to magically turn into that Really Great Wife who makes brag-worthy dinners and banana bread too good to be shared. But okay, I reason with myself, I've had to learn to love Nathan differently—better—than I've loved anyone before. And if I want to express my love with cooking, I'll have to learn that, too.