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Culinary choreography

(post, Ellen Kanner)

p(blue). Editor's note: We welcome Florida-based writer, vegetarian, and cook Ellen Kanner to the Dinner Guest Blog. Bon appétit! 

The secret to dancing is not being afraid to fall. So says my dance instructor. Easy for her. She’s not the one falling.  

I’ve been falling, and I have not been liking it. But I pick myself up and keep going.

The only place I’m not afraid to fall — or fail — is the kitchen. For this, I credit my paternal grandmother. She could not cook. Her leatherlike scrambled eggs used to make me cry. But she was effortlessly gifted in the ways of lemon cakes, coconut layer cakes, sour cream coffee cakes, brownies, sugar cookies, and liar’s cookies, those ground-almond confections rolled in so much powdered sugar, you couldn’t deny eating them — you’d be dusted and incriminated as soon as you bit into one.      


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She didn’t mind having me underfoot in the kitchen, but when I asked her specifics — how much butter do you add, how long do you bake it? — the best I ever got out of her was, “Till it potches together.” 

She wasn’t instructive, but she wasn’t restrictive, either. If six-year-old Ellen wanted to add an entire box of raisins to the brownie batter, she was all for it. And that’s how I became the freewheelin’ kitchen fool I am, why I’m strictly off-book when it comes to following recipes, why after more than 20 years of marriage, I’ve never made my husband the same meal twice.
There have been surprises, of course, and numerous flops. For a recent dinner-party finale, I made up a dessert I’d envisioned to be a delicate, multilayered, chocolate-and-meringue concoction, a yin-yang of velvety bittersweet ganache and the crisp give of meringue. It turned out to be a gigantic Moon Pie — way too sticky-sweet and possessing structural flaws, as though designed by an architect with DTs. And everyone ate with abandon, pronounced it delicious, and the world continued to spin. 

The moral here? Don’t let a culinary catastrophe — or 20 — keep you from playing in the kitchen. That’s where the fun is.       

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Ellen's Turkish millet."]

And for me, that’s where the balance is, too. When work or life conspire to keep me out of the kitchen for a while, I get a little wiggy. Cooking is its own meditation. If you can sit on your ass, breathe deeply, and find balance and serenity, honey, I salute you. Me, I’ve got to move. I study dance not because I’m good at it — I’m not. And not because I like falling or bruising — I don’t. But because I like myself more when I dance — or when I try.  

It’s the same with cooking; it’s something I can do every day to keep my brain from spinning like a centrifuge. When I’m in the kitchen, I know at that moment, I can’t cure cancer, can’t impose my will on an unruly co-worker or politician, can’t make a deadline go away. But I can make meal that pleases, comforts, and nourishes.  

Everything must be done in a certain order. First I put on the millet. While it’s cooking, I sauté the garlic and dill. It’s culinary choreography — focusing on doing each step, then the next brings me back to my core, to that teensy little place where I am sane and from whence flows my belief that the universe is still a good place to be. I’ll try different steps, add new ingredients. I am not afraid to fail. Shall we dance?

reference-image, l