Like digging your hands into garden soil, pruning a rose bush or pulling weeds, the actions themselves quietly inform other parts of your life. Are there areas of my existence, habits that need pruning, or soil that needs enriching? Is there a noxious “weed” from my past that still festers, and how do I yank it out?
Gardeners know this. So do musicians, cooks and teachers — in fact anyone who does creative work has this experience. It’s how our brains are made.
Cooking is no different. As a creative activity, it calls us to creative action. Sure, we’ll follow a recipe, but a good cook, with experience, will often start adding, subtracting, substituting ingredients — and maybe tossing aside the cookbook altogether.
However, at some point along the way to being good cooks, they had to learn the basics.
My mother, for instance, has been teaching children and adults to play the piano for 60 years and is still going strong at 82. She began her own musical training at the age of 5, and knew even then that this was going to be her life. But she had to learn the basics — picking out the black keys from the white, playing octaves, learning what half steps and whole steps looked like on the keyboard. I was convinced, after a lifetime of hearing hundreds of students stumble through lessons, that playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” was some kind of rite of passage. Everyone had to play it. I can still pick up a telephone to talk to my mom and some kid will be painfully pounding it out in the background.
The woman I am instructing now knew she needed to learn to cook for all the right reasons. It would save money, be more healthful, she’d enjoy the creative activity and it was something she could eventually share with friends. As we began, she seemed almost embarrassed to admit that when it came to cooking she was a blank slate.
This was all the better for the teacher, who was happy to put into print basic instructions, and teach those basic skills so long taken for granted.
I’m also, as it turns out, improving my own skills. I’ve become very casual about cooking, and am especially non-compulsive when it comes to boiling eggs. I only do this when I want to make deviled eggs, generally, and I’ve pretty much learned to buy the eggs a week or so early, so they’ll peel more easily and to not let them cook too long.
But when teaching someone to hard-cook eggs, a task that is in no way as simple as it seems, the teacher had to nail down the basics. Put the eggs in cold water, not hot. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook them for the amount of time needed based on how you want the egg, soft- or hard-cooked, and based on the size of the egg. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let the eggs stand in the hot water. With the (fresh) jumbo brown eggs we were using, this was 10 minutes at a simmer, then turning off the heat, covering the pan and leaving them in the water as it cooled. This worked, with nary a hint of the undesirable gray-green color around the yolk. (This is a harmless chemical change, by the way, and the eggs can be eaten if it happens.)
The eggs also peeled easily, despite their newness. So, the teacher added this bit of information to her store of hard-boiled knowledge.
Because this student is a very smart, observant young woman, she has made me think about my oh-so casual approach to cooking at home. For instance, I started the water heating on the stove, absentmindedly, before putting the eggs in to cook. Fine for a long-time cook who knows they can compensate down the road, but I was called on it (since my printed instructions told her the right way to do it).
That was a good thing: I was able to tell her I’d goofed up, tell her the right way it should have been done, and make a note to myself: tighten up on the cooking foundations, certainly when teaching them.
Just as exercising an ankle to build strength will better support the entire body, so brushing up on cooking basics will pay forward for the teacher, making her a better cook.
By the same token, I just might ask Mom to play “Fur Elise,” from memory, the next time I see her.