Saturday Throwback: Fear Itself

Every Saturday, we post a piece from CHG's archives. This one dates back to July 2007. What a nice month that was.

I have dinosaur hands.

They’re not green or scaled, and they don’t have that weird, hooky claw. Instead, they’re microscopic, pretty close to inoperable, and noticeably out of proportion with the rest of my body. When coupled with my stunning lack of coordination, they make certain tasks a bit tricky, if not extremely frightening.

Up until last year, the scariest of those challenges was operating a knife. I could never secure the right grip or put enough strength behind a chopping motion. Cleaving a piece of meat was an effort, and dicing vegetables took longer than Das Boot. On the rare occasions I cooked, I inevitably got tired and embedded a blade in my thumb.

Abundant blood loss and intense fear of further self-mutilation drove me to seek food elsewhere: the college dining hall, the work cafeteria, Burrito Loco across the street – anywhere but my own home. Finally, when the expenditures started piling up (see this post), I gave in and signed up for a Knife Skills class.

The three-hour session was a revelation. I learned technique and economy of movement. I found out why a big knife is better than a little one, and the difference between a julienne and a chiffonade. I saw how an onion could fall into a million tiny pieces with just three accurate slashes. Yet, these discoveries were nothing compared to the big one.

Turns out, the dread of slicing my fingers into Vienna sausages was representative of a much greater cowardice: essentially, I had been afraid of the kitchen.

What if I picked up a hot pan on the wrong end? What if my knuckles got caught in the cheese grater? What if the dirty dishes became insurmountable? What if I poisoned my parents?

What if I made something, and it was terrible?

I have Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech to the Harvard Class of 2000 hanging on my wall at work. In it, he says (and this is a wee bit paraphrased), “Every failure [is] freeing … Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally.” Emboldened after Knife Skills, I endeavored to apply this idea to the kitchen.

Now it’s year-and-a-half later, and things are a little different. I’ve cooked some truly vomit-inspiring meals. I’ve washed more plates than God. I can play tic-tac-toe in the burn marks on my wrists. But I’ve also churned out some pretty decent food, an achievement unthinkable to me in 2004. I recognize I’m still not a great cook, but hell – it’s a work in progress.

And maybe that’s one of the secrets to good, inexpensive, nutritionally balanced food: getting over your fears. I’m working on it, dinosaur hands and all.