The Other End of Sunset

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The seeds of future success are past failures.

Today’s lesson is about cooking.

Yes, cooking.

It turns out that I know a few things. But what is not among that list? How to cook.

Like as in, I don’t know anything. I can turn on the stove, usually reliably, but that is it.

How is it possible that I got to however-old-I-am without knowing how to cook? Well, I used to make bread. It was my usual Saturday ritual with my then wife. She liked the smell of bread baking in the house, and I was compulsive enough to enjoy the process, the mindless steps, the repetition, and the intermittent focus.

But I don’t care about the product – I usually gave it away.

My bread was good, and unusual, but I could never make a crust worth a darn. I think I needed to brush the crust with more egg white. But I liked the smell better if I put olive oil and water instead. So my crust stank. Not literally – it smelled good – but figuratively.

But I never learned how to cook anything useful. And I stopped baking bread a while ago. So I'm useless in the kitchen.

JR didn’t cook either. Strangely enough, they have these things called restaurants, where you can exchange coin of the realm for goods and services – in this case, for precooked food. There are lots of restaurants where I live, and many of them are reasonably decent. So that strategy worked well. But it didn’t do much for my learning.

JR cooked a few times, and I would sit in the kitchen and read the newspaper or a magazine to her. It was fun, although it’s surprising how hard it is to read out loud. I wasn’t so good at that, either. Anyway.

Food seems very important to lots of people. I have one friend who feels inexorable guilt because she wasn’t able to bring me something that she had cooked; she wanted to bring me something during my leave, to show me her support and caring. Another friend described her cooking as “a labor of love, to show that I love him”.

Interesting. If only I were really into food.

Don’t get me wrong, I like good food, and dislike bad food. But I'm as happy eating hamburgers (granted, without buns) as I am eating some very expensive dinner. And I can barely spell wine, much less pick one that matches the food, with an appropriate nose. I drink fairly cheap champagne, and can’t taste the difference with very expensive bubbly. I don’t like box wine, but you could probably fool me into liking it. I hate port and all those after dinner drinks.

I'm kind of a cheeseburger guy, you should hang out with someone else if you want fancy food and smart conversation about it.

Me, I eat to live, I don’t live to eat. Sorry to all of you who are disappointed in me for that.

Regardless, I should probably cook sometimes, if for no other reason than much restaurant food has too much salt. When I eat too much salt, I get mini-migraines.

What’s a mini-migraine? A headache that includes those weird optical illusions and light sensitivity. (A problem for me where I work – but a nice problem to have – is that there’s lots of salt in the food. So I periodically get these headaches. I usually work through them, but I am probably a bit testy during them. Sorry for all of you who have had to experience me then, and in the future…)

Anyway, back to my story. I decided that I should learn to cook. And I decided to start with scrambled eggs.

I mean, really, how hard can eggs be? Take some chicken products, stir them up, cook them on a stove, and voila, scrambled eggs. Right?

I’ve been doing experiments – at my heart, I'm a scientist, I like experiments. No, I'm not maintaining a lab book with my data. Whatever.

My first few experiments were abject failures. So I asked for help. A person I knew then taught me the basics.

It turns out that you need milk to make scrambled eggs. Who knew?

Ok, so I practiced the basics – made normal eggs, enjoyed them, felt like a success.

So, what did I learn from these successes? Well, it’s hard to learn much from successes, much easier to learn from failure. It’s probably why I’ve learned so much in my career.

But my lessons were many. It seems to matter when you add the pepper. It’s a little better if you add it before you cook the eggs. I can’t say why – maybe it’s because the pepper is then scattered throughout the food? Dunno. My cast iron skillet is good for cooking eggs. I think you’re supposed to heat the skillet first, that seemed to work better, anyway.

A brief note on iron skillets. You may wonder why I'm not using some fancy-pants Teflon skillet? I grew up in the South. Cast iron skillets were a big part of that culture – they were handed down from generation to generation. It was a big deal. Well, I have JR’s grandmother’s skillet – it may actually be her great-grandmother’s – and so I love using it. I'm a sucker for tradition. I smile every time I use it, and, of course, it reminds me of JR. As if I needed such reminders, but anyway. Back to my story.

With a few successful experiments under my belt, I decided to push the boundaries. And found my way back to the land of failure. I tried adding salsa to the mix, before I cooked the eggs. Nope. No good. Tasted good, but way too soggy. I think the eggs cooked before the salsa-oil evaporated? Egg soup, almost.

Today, I got smarter, I didn’t add the salsa (until the eggs were done). But I added some turkey breast and cheese. I added the turkey into the mixture, but added the cheese into the skillet after the eggs had started cooking. Not the right answer, apparently. The cheese was softened, but not melted – not even close. It’s also possible that the cheese chunks were too big. I can’t find a cheese grater, and I'm way too impatient to cut dozens of little teeny pieces, so I used kind of big chunks. No melt.

I also had the bright idea of adding some toast to the mix. But I can’t eat bread. So I grabbed some corn tortillas. Hmm, toasting them is a challenge. I have a toaster, but tortillas don’t have a lot of horizontal structural stability. As I learned this morning, having horizontal structural stability keeps the bread-substitute off of the heating elements. You can guess the outcome of bread-substitute on heating-element action? Right, fire.

OK, get creative – hey, wait, there’s an OVEN here! Cool, stick tortillas on baking sheet, in oven, rock. The problem? I forgot to do all this work before I started cooking the eggs. So they weren’t done until way after I had mostly eaten the eggs.

Hmm. Timing failure; toasted tortillas make a bad after-meal snack. Perhaps I should have put butter or salsa or something on them? Maybe next time.

I have also begun to experiment with side dishes. Today, I tried to master the nonfat cottage cheese. It turns out that it isn’t hard to do – a spoon, a dish, and success. Doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. I'm not exactly sure where to go next.

I am watching Meet the Press. Robert Novak just said, in all seriousness, that he didn’t get Valerie Plume’s name from a government official. Hmm, that’s splitting a very fine hair, there, Bobby. You got the information that Ambassador Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA employee. But (according to him) the sources – senior governmental officials, who should know the law, but apparently that doesn’t matter – didn’t give him Valerie Plume’s name. He got it from Wilson’s Who’s Who entry. Novak’s justification is that she wasn’t a covert agent, she was an undercover analyst – and he asserted that he believes she was outed by Rick Ames, the spy. However, Novak called him “Aldrich Ames” not Rick, which is unusual for people who knew him; so how did Novak know that?

Anyway, I think to most people “Ambassador Wilson’s wife” would constitute “the name”. Thus, Novak could have – should have – said that he got the name from a governmental official. But of course, I think to most people, it looks like an illegal act to give up undercover names, but the independent prosecutor apparently doesn’t agree with me. So what do I know?

North Korea may, or may not, have ICBMs and nuclear weapons. Iran is still purifying Uranium. Do you feel safer than you did before? Yeah, me neither. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a foreign policy strategy? Maybe on that included other countries, wasn’t dependent on solo force, and included some provision for institutional development in the countries we have destabilized.

But what do I know, I can’t even make scrambled eggs.