Back in my own kitchen—my barren, unrenovated, apartment-size kitchen—the sea bass looked grandiose, the Frangelico out of place. All the ingredients, in fact, seemed to taunt, "You've no idea what to do with us, have you?" I realized I had never in my life touched a raw leek—and I panicked.
I am an inhibited cook. That is not to say that I'm an inhibited eater. I can spend an hour savoring a slice of flourless chocolate cake, letting each bite melt onto my tongue. I'm on a first-name basis with the owner of a little French BYO nearby, where I sip red wine between bites of goat-cheese-and-ratatouille crepe. I fantasize about making these things in my own kitchen. I pore over cookbooks as if they're porn when I'm alone, imagining my fingers doing wild things with fresh cardamom pods and Arborio rice. My husband wishes I'd experiment more, but something holds me back. Inevitably, I wind up making the same joyless chicken stir-fry—the missionary position on a plate.
So, I hatched a plan: Like a character on a reality TV show who conquers her phobias by cuddling snakes or jumping from a plane, I would prepare an extravagant four-course dinner for six people, one of whom trained at the French Culinary Institute. Or I'd fail miserably and be forced to feed my guests canned chicken noodle soup. Either way, by the end of the evening, I would have confronted my culinary inhibitions. The dishes I chose seemed ambitious, yet somehow feasible: a salad of hazelnuts and oranges followed by homemade ricotta gnocchi, Chilean sea bass with leeks and potatoes, and, finally, chocolate pots de crème.
No sooner had I set out to make the meal than I had a showdown with my first inhibition: fear of fat. I'm the kind of person who looks at a bottle of olive oil and thinks, 120 calories per tablespoon. I've spent my entire adult life tossing egg yolks down the kitchen drain and using only the whites, and shunning cheeses whose packages didn't read "lite" or "part skim." And while I'll gladly eat butter and cream when they're hidden inside a chocolate bread pudding someone else has made, I can't stand to be the person responsible for using them. I feel guilty just seeing them on my kitchen counter.
My gnocchi called for full-fat everything: ricotta as thick as cement, three large whole eggs, and a sauce made from 13 (13!) tablespoons of melted butter. The only nonfatty part of this dish was the plate of flour I dredged the dumplings in after I had formed them—or, in this case, malformed them. I tried to take pleasure in rocking each fleshy wad of goo between my palms; tried to imagine them arranged on the plate glistening with butter. And suddenly, I felt nauseated, pushed to the outer limits of my fat phobia. I finished forming just 24 of the 48 gnocchi, slid them into the fridge, and dumped the rest of the batter into the garbage.
Things got easier when I turned to my pots de crème. After all, a dessert isn't a dessert unless it is unapologetically bad for you. (Otherwise, why not serve fruit?) Yes, there was an initial temptation to substitute skim milk for half of the heavy cream. But I was glad I didn't give in 15 minutes later, when I licked a dollop of chocolate custard from my fingers. I felt pretty sure I had never made anything this delicious in my life.
The moment I began fantasizing about presenting these yummy desserts to my astounded guests, however, I ran smack into another hang-up: my ever-looming dread of failure—public failure—in the kitchen. I've wrestled with it since I was 23 and decided that I was a grown-up and ready to cook like one, so I invited an older married couple I knew for dinner. Despite the fact that my entire prior culinary experience consisted of whipping up improvised backpacker-type concoctions for one, I attempted to prepare poached salmon with wild mushroom risotto. The fish was mushy, the rice was hard, and I wound up sending out for Thai. I remember thinking, "This can never happen again."
Full disclosure: A day before the dinner party, I logged on to Fresh Direct's Web site. The heat-and-serve hors d'oeuvres looked tempting—but I resisted. This, after all, was supposed to be a personal challenge. My version of skydiving. So I did what any responsible grown-up should do: I read through all my recipes 24 hours ahead of time. Then I drew up a timeline allowing what I thought was ample time to make each dish and take a shower long before my friends arrived.
I now know that four hours is nowhere near enough time to cook a meal of this magnitude, let alone screw it up. It's not enough time to clean flour off the floor, off the dog, off the refrigerator door, and off my face. It's not enough time to allow chopped potatoes to melt properly into a sauce. A wave of fear swept through me when I realized that I would not be showering before my guests arrived. But then it disappeared, replaced by a much more comforting thought: So what? I'm cooking for four good friends and one very sympathetic husband—all of whom, thank God, like me for things besides culinary prowess. They're coming here to eat dinner with me, not judge me.
Which brings me to my most vexing issue: Why was I making like Donna Reed in the first place? I grew up with a type-A, college-professor mother who made family dinners with a bottomless glass of scotch by her side and contagious resentment oozing from every pore. I remember the mindless detective shows that blared on the kitchen TV, the angry sound of her knife against the wood cutting board, the curses that shot from her mouth when she burned a pot of rice. Every so often, she would lug out her recipe for stuffed cabbage and torture herself by rolling each leaf around pouches of ground beef and raisins, not because we liked them (we didn't) but "because I want to prove to myself that I can," as she bitterly put it.
So what was I trying to prove? I earn just as much as my husband—who, incidentally, can cook circles around me. Yet here I was clamoring around the kitchen searching for nonexistent ramekins as if my life depended on it while he was in the bedroom napping. "This is your project," he said. "You're the one who wanted to feel more comfortable in the kitchen." He was right. I'd gone into this thinking that I could rid myself of my inherited belief that cooking is a loathsome chore that prevents a woman from fulfilling her rightful destiny. Since I was free from the pressure my mother felt to prove her worth in the kitchen, surely I'd be able to rediscover the playful and, yes, even sensual side of cooking.
A part of me hoped to emerge from the dinner party running through a proverbial field of daisies with a strainer in one hand and a dog-eared cookbook in the other. This did not happen. I greeted my guests with a sweaty, flushed face at 7, and spent the next hour toiling away in the kitchen while they sat in the living room drinking wine. My gnocchi buckled and stretched when I dropped them into a pot of boiling water and soon resembled drowned baby mice. I divided them into mercifully tiny portions of four dumplings a person, then cringed as I watched my good friends choke them down. Halfway through the next course, my Culinary Institute friend gently offered suggestions for ways that I might properly reduce the sauce for the Chilean sea bass the next time around. But she praised my salad! And everyone at the table gobbled up every trace of those pots de crème. By the last hour of my dinner party, everyone was too dizzy with Riesling and Pinot Noir to remember that my cooking had been anything short of wonderful.
Everyone except me, that is. I realized that maybe cooking a four-course dinner will never be as much fun as eating one. Maybe the most luxurious thing I can do in the kitchen is to simmer a homemade tomato sauce with fresh rosemary, oregano, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Then, when it's time to sit down for dinner, I'll toss a salad, set the table, and pour that tomato sauce over a steaming bowl of gnocchi—premade gnocchi that I bought, frozen, at the store across the street.
Cara Birnbaum is a writer who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.