The cook goes from toasted to roasted

Here's a subject I expect my family has pondered. Regarding my cooking, which came first: the egg (stuck to the pan, gooey in the middle) or the chicken (burnt at the wings, yet bleeding at the bone)?

Once upon a time, I could cook. Not perfectly, of course. I never accomplished a gravy suitable for anything other than car putty. And pies were an impossibility.

On the other hand, I had no canned soup in my pantry. I made it from scratch, of course, chopping and browning, seasoning and simmering. I not only baked my own bread (for a while grinding the grains like the Little Red Hen), I emulsified my own mayo. Juiced my own juice. Dried my own herbs. Sprouted my own sprouts. I invented and published recipes – and copied countless of those recipes for clamoring dinner guests. I took my cooking gifts for granted.

If it sounds like I'm bragging, believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a nostalgic lament. Oh, how my culinary talents have fallen – like a badly treated soufflé.

Sometimes I wonder: Was this drastic change as instantaneous as a scorched grilled-cheese sandwich, or was it more of a long, slow drying-out of culinary juices, like the last turkey I labored over? Did I awaken one morning unable to scramble an egg?

No, I believe it was gradual: A watery, bland soup here. A tastes-like-gauze casserole there. A cheesecake fit for mortaring brick walls. A husband saying, "Oh, don't bother to cook dinner. I'll pick something up on the way home," or simply asking, "Why?" when I tell him I've already started the meal. My daughter-in-law's offers to "just bring dinner over to your house – I've been dying to make this dish," becoming more and more frequent. And houseguests who are increasingly inclined to say, "Don't cook – please! No, really. We want to take you out." after sampling my first meal.

Finally, I considered myself fortunate if I could bake a frozen pizza or spoon a jar of sauce over spaghetti without mangling the job. Trust me on this: There is no such thing as "foolproof" convenience food.

For decades, a cookie in our house was homemade, from scratch. I did not buy mixes. But because cookies mysteriously began glomming onto cookie sheets or spreading into one enormous cookie, I bought a brownie mix. My daughter-in-law came by as it was cooling. The magnificent scent of warm chocolate filled the house.

"Want one?" I offered Andrea, proud that I had something tasty around for once. Unfortunately, the brownies were so soupy that she had to slurp up spoonfuls.

"It still tastes good," she assured me kindly. After she left, I decided I could easily fix the consistency problem.

When my husband came home, his jaw dropped." You made brownies?" he asked incredulously. "Oh, boy!" CLANK. His knife hit the chocolaty surface and bounced off. All efforts to cut the brownies met with failure (although we never did try the chain saw that Craig suggested).

"Gosh," I said. "What's the problem? Andrea had some." I added, "Well, OK, so she had to eat it with a spoon. That was before I firmed them up a tad."

"What did you do?"

"Microwaved them."

"Well, I'm calling NASA," Craig said. "You can't eat the brownies, but I believe you've invented a new, indestructible substance. We should patent this stuff."

A few years ago, Craig decided to remodel the kitchen. "Gut the kitchen?!" I shrieked, I mean murmured. "What will we do for meals?"

Craig looked at me. I looked at Craig. A suspicion dawned. "You are going to keep it a kitchen, right? Even if I can no longer cook. If we ever sold the house, people would expect a kitchen."

"That thought never crossed my mind," he said. I'm still wondering if that's true.

My beloved cookbooks gathered dust. I have a few – hundred, that is. Back when I could cook, I read a Julia Child or Mollie Katzen as if it were a novel, marking the recipes I planned to dazzle with. I bought cookbooks, won them in recipe contests, and received them as gifts. We built a bookcase just to house my recipe volumes. When it overflowed, we erected another. But as recipes failed, I couldn't bear to browse any longer.

Today, though, I picked up one of my old faithfuls. I flipped nostalgically through, reading my scribbled "Craig loves this!" and "A++" comments. A roast chicken recipe called seductively to me from its page, wafting imaginary luscious scents.

"Forget it," I muttered. Under my care, the chicken was sure to be burnt or bleeding or, or, or...." On the other hand, I told myself, if you don't fight hopelessness, you never get to hope.

Later, Craig gaped at a golden bird, surrounded by tender browned new potatoes and carrots. So did I. It looked not just edible, but delectable. Evidently, I could cook again. Why did my cooking gifts return? Why had they vanished in the first place? Maybe I'd gotten careless about my talent. Just possibly, I had to lose my culinary abilities entirely in order to truly appreciate them. I don't know. But I knew I'd never again take them for granted.

Suddenly, I felt as if I could do anything. Even....

"Wait," I said. "I'm making gravy." I did, and (if I do say so myself) it was delicious – as was the entire meal.

Today gravy; tomorrow the world ... or maybe even pie.

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