More and more, my sons are in the kitchen making meals alongside me, their spatulas wielded by increasingly-confident hands. Because they have learned how to express themselves through cooking, their techniques are much more advanced than mine were at their age. My twelve-year-old makes a great omelet and rolls sushi properly, my seven-year-old has waffle-making down pat and is a whiz at flipping sliders.
I instruct them, show them a technique once or twice, and then slowly remove myself from the process, because I believe that the best teacher is one who makes himself less and less necessary. In the kitchen, this stepping aside isn’t easy for me, even though I teach literature to teenagers five days a week for a living. After all, in the classroom, I never have cause to flinch at the carnage I imagine whenever one of my budding chefs grabs a butcher knife or pours boiling water from the kettle or almost reaches into a rocket-hot skillet with his bare naïve fingertips. Despite what my high schoolers will tell you, none of them has ever had to have stitches to seal a gash opened by a rogue metaphor or been given a third degree burn by a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
So far, though, my sons’ mistakes are of the nonlethal variety, and these are often the best moments because they always plant road signs to the future, to next time. The chimichanga burned? That’s okay, Mom likes them a little crunchy, but you might want to put the burner on medium instead of high next time. The sushi fell apart? That’s okay, it happens to me all the time, but try running a wet finger along the edge of the nori so you seal the roll next time. And when things go well, when the meal is exquisite and the recipe worthy of being written down and saved for another time, there is pride and celebration. But mistakes are going to happen. They are speed bumps on the culinary highway, and speed bumps are irritating. They slow you down, spill coffee on your lap, make the CD skip (you still listen to those, right?), cause the baby in his car seat to drop his toy and howl until you find a way to return it. Despite their inconveniences, they still serve a purpose, and so do mistakes. To this end, I’ve crafted a culinary Rule of Three on how to deal with mistakes in our kitchen, which reads as follows:
Rule One: We don’t fear making mistakes in our kitchen. We need to take the occasional culinary risk in the kitchen (but never a safety risk – wash those hands, goshdarnit!). We’re artists, and artists need to stretch in order to thrive, to excel. We need to pay mind to the flighty muse who whispers in our ear when she feels like it: Hey, baby, how would some red pepper flake taste in that sauce? Try adding some cocoa powder to your chili, trust me. The problem is that this muse is a bit of a flake who alternately has moments of brilliance and idiocy: Well, I thought using beer instead of wine in your risotto sounded like a good idea. Oh, well. Gotta run! It’s our job to figure out which is which, and that’s where we have to be a bit fearless. And we’ll never take a chance on a new idea if we’re terrified of lousing it up; fear leads to stagnation, stagnation leads to boredom, boredom leads to giving up and eating cheap fast food every night. I’m not saying we need to like our mistakes (that’s problematic in its own right), but we should understand the role of error in the learning process.
Rule Two: We don’t conceal mistakes. This is a tough one. It’s human nature to try and hide a whoopsie. We can’t do this on a regular basis, though, especially if it’s for the same mistake over and over. That kind of concealment often leads to a widening gyre of screw-ups and cover-ups, ad infinitum; it’s a path of procrastination where you never find a solution, only ways to pretend that you know what you’re doing. Plus, if you are in a pattern of concealment, you’ll never seek help from outside. Someone else out there (maybe in our very kitchen!) has made the very same mistake, and if you’re in denial about your own, you’ll never seek out their feedback. Suck it up, confess, and ask for guidance. Luckily, we have our last rule to make this one more feasible.
Rule Three: We don’t judge another based upon his or her mistakes. This rule is absolute, whether you’re the cook who oversalted the soup or the diner who spit it out. The way I see it, if you haven’t messed a meal up at some point, you’re either lying or lazy; don’t judge yourself or others too harshly. Luckily, most of our kitchen failings are still edible (I usually set out a special bowl filled with those sushi rolls that, well, refused to roll, and they are consumed as readily as the properly formed ones), and if not? Well, if there’s no immediate chance to try again, that’s why we have pizza delivery on speed dial.