September 16, 2010

Some Grief, Some Joy

I spent Labor Day at my grandparents’ house. For the past few years, various members of the family have met there to enjoy one another’s company. Somewhere along the way, we solved the logistical problems of feeding a large group of people multiple days by deciding that a different branch of the family would cook each night. Last year, the dinner assignments split naturally among my mother and her siblings. This year, we were short an uncle and his branch to prepare food. My mother, half joking, suggested that my cousin and I take up the slack and make dinner one night.

I went for it. After all, I am a wannabe foodie and I knew that my cousin has some wicked entertaining skills—we could totally take on dinner one night! I am proud of my cooking skills. I have had lots of helpful instruction from various people in my life, and have watched a lot of Food Network, but a considerable amount of my skill is the result of me experimenting on myself. While I don’t think I have a natural talent for food creation (I would never be able to come up with a dish on “Chopped”), I know the cooking basics and can work a recipe. I consider my modest cooking abilities to be an accomplishment of practice and study and am always excited by the chance to show off a little.

The problem is, I have stage fright. That’s the best way I can put it. It is very similar to public speaking for me. I can know my topic, I can practice my speech, I can feel confident in myself...until I stand up in front of people. Then, without fail, my stomach back flips, I break a sweat, and my tongue seems much larger than it did before. No matter how prepared I am for a speech, I will always be nervous while giving it. I can have a recipe down, I can have cooked it a hundred times successfully, I can know my kitchen inside and out, but as soon as someone is in the room while I’m cooking I become hugely self-conscious. As soon as someone is about to take a bite of what I’ve cooked, I am convinced it is horrible-tasting poison.

I come from a loving and supporting family. I was in no way heckled while cooking. In fact, both my cousin and aunt were extremely helpful as I eeked and oohed my way through fixing dinner (eeking and oohing being my traditional method of dealing with nerves). My Mom, who I was determined to give the night off, even tagged in for the occasional assist. It was a team dinner, no doubt, but I knew that the main dish was still my choice and my responsibility, and the thought of that nearly gave me hives. I comforted myself with the thought that we could always get pizza delivered, even as my entire family was making affirmative comments. Only after everyone had eaten, after many compliments, after two family members asked for the recipe, could I relax a little bit and believe I hadn’t poisoned my loved ones.

What I find fascinating about all of this is that I feel at the same time both the need to show off my cooking talents and the secret doubt that I’m culinary disaster waiting to happen. I both want to cook for people and am terrified to cook for people simultaneously. I know I will continue to welcome opportunities to prepare meals for others, but history tells me that I’m going to freak out a little every time I do so.

As we were eating the shrimp and pasta dish that I had prepared, my aunt noticed I wasn’t eating very much. (My entire body was clenched as I waited to see if my grandmother would keel over onto her platter.) She told me that when she entertains that she often has “cook’s mouth.” She’s spends so much time and energy making sure everything is perfect for her guests she is unable to enjoy the meal for herself.

The idea of cook’s mouth makes me feel better about my love/hate relationship with cooking for others. Perhaps that duality is just a result of caring so much about the people I’m cooking for. (I really don’t want my grandmother to keel over while eating.) Perhaps, the stage fright is just proof of how invested I am in perfecting my dish. Or, perhaps, I’m just a tad insecure.

Still, I keep cooking. I keep welcoming the opportunities to cook for others. I’ll just have to keep on managing the minor freak outs as well.