How I overcame my cooking fears
Maria Rodale shares how she got over all sorts of common fears, including throwing a dinner party.
Fri, Jul 16, 2010 at 11:26 AM
I don’t fear much anymore about food. But I remember all the different phases of fear I’ve been through during my lifetime of gardening, entertaining, feeding a family, and just plain cooking.
The first phase was a fear of somehow poisoning my family and myself by serving something I shouldn’t. For instance, I knew rhubarb leaves were toxic, but what about eggplant skins? I’m still not sure whether or not you can eat the skin on ginger. What about beet leaves? Which berries are edible and which ones aren’t? Experienced gardeners and cooks often take their knowledge for granted, but I do remember being young and afraid. In fact, the only time I ever ended up in the emergency room was when I was little and had eaten a berry from a yew bush (even though my cousin begged me not to!). I survived, and so does the memory of hunching over a stainless steel bowl in the hospital’s emergency room after being dosed with syrup of ipecac.
Then there is the fear of people not being impressed by my efforts. Is my cooking or my garden good enough to share with others? Do they like it? Do they really, really like it? I started cooking at about the same time Martha Stewart was rising in popularity, and it all seemed so damned hard! Consequently, I went for more than a decade without throwing a dinner party just because I felt I wasn’t good enough. (It didn’t help that I became so distracted around guests that I more than once set the kitchen on fire. Stopping drinking helped my kitchen concentration skills.)
Only in the past 10 years or so have I vanquished most of my fears and come into my own as a cook. To do this, I developed and perfected a technique I call Extreme Simplicity. It basically stems from the fact that when you start with fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, you really don’t need to do much to make them taste good. A little salt, a little olive oil, and shazam! You’ve got yummiful food. When I cook now, I try to get to the essence of a recipe and cut out all the complicated steps and unnecessary flavors…especially the bitter and toxic taste of pretension.
I know it works because my family devours my food. (In fact, my teenage daughter told me it’s what she would miss most about me if I died—high praise indeed.) For her sake, I’ve started writing down my recipes so that even after I’m gone, she and her children can share the pleasure of my extreme simplicity. You can find the recipes I’m in favor of on my blog and at the Rodale Recipe Finder (just type “Maria’s farm country kitchen” in the search bar).
I still have a few fears — eating organ meats, for instance. But, truthfully, not every fear in life needs to be overcome. What makes me happiest is that my family and I love sharing good food together. And that’s extremely simple.