Baby Steps

“Just take it like a shot, you can do it. One, two, three.”

I still cannot believe that Erik had to coach me through a small dose of NyQuil in a session that took the better part of an hour. At 18 years old I had the same fervent hatred for liquid medicines as I’d had at age 6, and the lurid, anise-scented syrup wasn’t making a strong case for itself.

The standard adult dose of NyQuil is two tablespoons, and it comes in its own plastic cup. In ounces, that corresponds roughly to an average-sized shot glass but I’m skeptical that the manufacturers of our favorite dolphin-emblazoned glasses were particularly committed to precision. Regardless, a two-tablespoon-sized cup of anything looks pretty piddling, but I couldn’t bring this one near my mouth without tears springing to my eyes and my gag reflex threatening mutiny.

I had my first college flu and my (older, wiser) friends had taken it upon themselves to look after me after listening to a few hours of piteous whining. Erik presented me with a bottle of deep green decongestant goo for what I’m sure he thought was going to be a one-gulp fix, and instead I presented him with my usual sickbed hysteria.

“What does it taste like? Will it linger? Does it work right away? Do I have to take it? Can I do it in little sips? Oh please take it away–wait, I need it. Really, just…one swallow? That’s all? Will it really help me sleep? How soon do I have to go to sleep? I won’t like it. I don’t like it. Do I have to?”

I cowered in my roommate’s chair trying to drum up enough courage for a single swallow while Erik and Jordan tried to increase its appeal.

“You know it’s really not that bad. It smells so much worse than it tastes; I actually kind of like it!”

“Yeah, dude, it will help you sleep sooo much better. You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s not going to magically cure you, you know that right? But you’ll sleep and then you’ll feel so much better, and that’s what you want isn’t it? We all want that–please!

I got brave. I took the cup. I studied it, took a few deep breaths–and handed it back.

“I can’t.”

To the boys’ credit, they maintained astonishing calm while we repeated this process. I came close to downing the cup, so very desperate to get it over with and finally sleep, but so repulsed by the smell and viscosity that I pushed it away every time. At last Erik threatened to pinch my nose shut for me while I sipped, which was enough to make me yelp, “That won’t be necessary!” and finish the dose in one go.

As soon as I was through sniffling and wincing, Jordan leaned over with a mischievous grin. “So. I wasn’t going to tell you this before, but I puked everywhere the first time I took NyQuil. See? You did fine!”

With that they sent me to bed and checked in the next morning, when I had to admit that yes, I had slept very well and my headache was gone and I could breathe and probably some of that had to do with the NyQuil, a bit.

I have since discovered that NyQuil comes in simple, odor-free pills, which mercifully takes all the drama out of a head cold. But I think of that incident often since it tends to repeat itself whenever I have a big decision ahead of me. The need to make post-graduate plans has gotten stronger in the few months that I’ve been out of college, yet I wind myself up in a monstrous web of pros and cons and lose my focus. I imagine many possibilities, some excellent and some outrageous, but if I overthink them I am likely to fall into NyQuil Mode and reject something promising and useful. When I feel myself veering too close to the planning anxiety (“I should do this, but I can’t do that, and this is too scary, and that is too far, but oh god, I should DO this!”), I have to remind myself that an independent move should be like medicine. However unpleasant at the time, it ought to be ultimately restorative so that I can continue forging forward. Sometimes I need a little push.

My mise en place

As soon as I set up this site with the help of my housemate (hi, Sean!), I got an uneasy feeling that we had created a monster. Not because I’m a monster, although if you make me wait too long for breakfast we will have a situation, but because I’m being haunted by the words of Amanda Hesser. Amanda is a well-known food writer and curator of Food52, and recently published an article entitled Advice for Future Food Writers (full text is on their site, here). I read it in April, when I was two weeks away from turning in my undergraduate thesis, and what started as a little pleasure reading for procrastination soon became a full-blown “What am I going to do with my life?!” crisis.

Amanda’s essay can seem grim if you scan it quickly, late at night, and under the influence of way too much caffeine. Her premise is that, as an established author in the rapidly-changing food community, she no longer advises aspiring food writers to start a career focused exclusively on their writing. It simply cannot be done anymore; food publications and their budgets are dwindling and the proliferation of blogs (food and otherwise) has made it harder to stand out as a fledgling writer. These observations made perfect sense to me and confirmed some of my suspicions about the state of food blogging, but after my first brief read-through of the article I felt queasy and a little angry. I’ve only wanted to be a Saveur contributor since I was oh, 9 years old.

However, I regard the food writing community as I do a crowded kitchen: when someone who knows what they’re talking about pipes up, you get out of the way and listen. Amanda Hesser has never let me down culinarily and her own publications are impressive, so it seemed only right to give her article a more studied read. As it turns out, it doesn’t really warrant all the hand-wringing and sighing on my part and Amanda is not out to squash my dreams after all, so I can blame my earlier hysteria on thesis-related madness. Advice for Future Food Writers concludes with a list of Amanda’s new recommendations, and the future is starting to smell a lot riper (in a fresh nectarine kind of way, not a Limburger cheese way). My takeaway from the article is that it is most important to get busy collecting experiences with food whether you’re growing it, preparing it, selling it, or writing about it.  Then you’ll build yourself a nice foundation in the food world and contribute to what is already an amazing community.

This is happy news for me, since I never wanted to spend the rest of my life typing away at a keyboard anyhow. Now that I’ve been kicked out of my nest of academia (okay, true confession time: I am pretty damn sore about having graduated–my precious college years, where did they go?!–and I miss my thesis every single day), I have to consider what I want to do next and how I’m going to do it, which brings me to the mise en place.

Mise en place is a culinary term that refers to the careful organization of ingredients and equipment before cooking begins. You’ve surely seen the pictures on various blogs: spoons just so, carrots scrubbed and peeled, minced garlic heaped in a tiny bowl, ready to be sauteed. Mise photos on cooking sites are my favorites, because they often include ingredients that I’d otherwise forget (oh hey, bay leaf), and I think the components of a meal before they are incorporated into the whole are always gorgeous. I love the concept of the preparation but in my own world, I struggle with the actual execution.

Here’s what happens when I try to assemble a mise en place: I have to wash a bunch of dishes first, knowing that I will only have to wash them again once more when I’m through cooking (we do it old-school in my mint-green Portland kitchen, with soap and a sponge). It does not make for a cheerful start. Then I have to chop, measure, and pour my ingredients into their respective bowls. Now, okay, I went to a Montessori school. I should have learned to chop, measure, and pour before I could spell my own name, but somehow that early tactile education did not transfer to my experiences in the kitchen. I spill. A lot. No two slices come out the same size, and I’m too terribly impatient to measure accurately (yes, this is my own fault). So let’s recap: I’m trying to put this recipe together, my hands are still kinda soapy, I’ve dropped food on the floor and down that infuriating, unreachable crevice between the stove and the sink, I’m getting hungry, and I’ve probably forgotten something. There is nothing about this process that says to me, “Keep going, girl! Don’t give up and order a pizza instead!” If I practiced, had more patience and a larger kitchen, I might have better luck with the mise en place and wouldn’t be such a haphazard cook, but what really concerns me is the way I fail to carry out those plans.

When it’s a recipe, that’s one thing. I really can just order a pizza or have cereal for dinner if a dish gets irreparably ruined. But there is something a little more sinister about the idea of having a mise en place for my life as a well-rounded Future Food Writer. I love to make plans. I live for lists (both To-Do and Pro/Con), and I like to know where I’m going, when I’m going there, and who I’m going to meet. I would love to have a mise for the next few years, to have all the ingredients for my life in one place, so I could start putting plans into effect and stop wondering, “What should I do next?” Lately it’s becoming clear that all of my imaginary plans, the “Well, what if I worked on a farm first and then tried to do some catering and then moved to Europe and then went back to school?” ideas, are becoming a hindrance to any real action on my part, but I fear that if I don’t plan, whatever I do next will be as messy as my meals.

It has been a very long time since I’ve been left to my own devices without school assignments or social commitments, so I’m easing into a freakishly free world. Yes, I would like to set up that mise en place with some rock-solid plans, but having already seen what happens when I try that with food, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps it might be time for some improvisation.

You say "ice cream," I say "research."