Photo by Rudy Issa on Unsplash

I am clueless in the kitchen. My rarely used oven is stocked with organic kibbles for my cat, blue corn chips, and peanut butter pretzels to slake my salt tooth. My microwave doubles as a big breadbox. For years, I lived off the delicious delis and high-end hot bars in Seattle stores. Always anxious in my kitchen, it’s the scene of many disasters and disappointments. Reading recipes, I have a mental block like with math or multiple-choice quizzes. My kitchen is not a place of refuge, adventure, or nourishment. It’s a pit stop in my food-as-fuel life.

But during this pandemic, all my usual options are suddenly limited. In quarantine, I can’t whiz through my local grocery store, happily tossing in take-out containers of hot tomato basil soup, teriyaki beef, or colorful root veggies. On a student’s suggestion, I ordered a more frugal box of groceries delivered weekly from Imperfect Foods — groceries that would otherwise go to waste because of cosmetic imperfections, surplus, or packaging changes: A misshapen eggplant, undersized avocados, off-season but abundant mandarins, Meyer lemons, and seaweed pasta that is rich in magnesium, though the neon-blue swirls look like weird astronaut rations.

Once on an ambitious whim — and because I happen to be inexplicably techy — I ordered an Instapot. But I was instantly overwhelmed by its complex, inscrutable buttons. I gave the shiny, intimidating Instapot to my good friend, Greg. Spotless and cozy, his kitchen is inviting, always the simmering aromas of winter beef stews, blueberry-almond muffins, or his spicy chili.

“Look,” Greg advised when I whined about my kitchen incompetence. “Everyone’s got to learn to cook, especially now. Let’s start you off with Sloppy Joe’s. Simple. Brown lean beef, stir in ketchup, some seasoning,” he coached. “Remember to add brown sugar for that tempting tang.”

With Greg’s guidance I rustled up a good batch of Sloppy Joes, imagining I was on an Old West cattle drive. Slightly sweet bison slathered over a toasted brioche bun with an added dill pickle slice. Other kind friends encouraged my baby steps in the kitchen. My apartment mates, all extraordinary cooks, are stress-baking in quarantine. Just when my blood sugar is dropping after a morning’s work, I’ll get a text from my Middle Eastern neighbor, Haleh:

“Lunch outside your door. Adas Polo. Salad Shirazi (cucumber salad) Persian.”

My downstairs neighbor, Mindy, is experimenting with new dishes in her ample kitchen. Often her culinary genius fills my apartment with the home-baked fragrance of ginger-rosemary shortbread or French lamb stew. I’ll get a text:

“Working on my winter menu. Butternut squash lasagna. Hungry?”

It was Mindy who inspired me to make a much better morning omelet. “The secret is to heat the skillet before you add the avocado oil and egg mix,” she taught me. Mindy also advises me now on Easy Egg Salad and pizza, using pre-bought pizza dough. “You can add veggie and meat leftovers and make it fun, instead of ho-hum.”

In return for all of these culinary gifts and advice, I make music playlists for friends and neighbors. I’ve discovered that playing music and singing — skills I enjoy and excel at — help me venture into the terrifying territory of my own kitchen. Using one passion to help me explore another new world. Like whistling in the dark.

Now, I actually look forward to making my breakfast omelets, adding avocado, cherry tomatoes, and mildly spiced Trader Joe’s pimento cheese. After these many months of my own home cooking, I found myself last week actually humming along to my favorite Chris Botti jazz playlist as I swirled tomato sauce on a prefab cauliflower pizza crust; arranging marinated artichoke hearts, fresh pepperoni, cherry tomatoes, and shredded mozzarella. It occurred to me that for my next pizza, I might listen to Hawaiian music and try a pineapple topping.

Gazing in wonder through the French doors of my new convection oven at the cheese bubbling brightly on my pizza, I finally realized:

I’m at home in my own kitchen.

Recently, I’ve started tuning into the amiable companionship of the Great British Baking show. Just subscribed to the New York Times cooking app. Fresh crepes are now available in my local store, so I’ve ordered a remarkable rosehips fruit spread, stocking my freezer with sun-ripened summer berries.

Soon I might dare to offer neighbors something homemade of my own. Hawaiian pizza or Greg’s chili. When I told my friend, Sy, also an expert chef, about my culinary hopes, she wrote:

“I love that you’re discovering cooking.
But now you won’t be able to store stuff in your oven.”

My bigger stove is still a cupboard, but my kitchen is inhabitable, like discovering a hidden room in my home — a parallel universe. The kitchen portal is wide open, so even if I can’t venture out during this pandemic, there is much more space to wander within.~

Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of 23 books of fiction and non-fiction, including the novel, Duck and Cover, a New York Times, “Notable Book of the Year” and the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, chosen by The Christian Science Monitor as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction” book of the year. It was also an Indie Next “Great Read,” among Independent Booksellers. Peterson’s latest non-fiction book is Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, named a “Best Conservation Book of the Year” by Forbes magazine. Peterson’s work has appeared on NPR and in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, and Oprah magazine.

Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” and the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind.

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