July 15, 2024

Cooking through it

At the beginning of 2020 – before coronavirus and quarantine and masks and social distancing – I set a goal for myself to take the time to make one nice recipe per month. I never felt much motivation to learn to cook growing up and even now it’s hard as one person living alone, but I wanted to start feeling more comfortable making things for myself in the kitchen. I figured one single thing in the span of a full month would be manageable. 

Then restaurants closed and it felt risky to go to the grocery store too often. I realized I was in for a lot more home cooking than I originally bargained for. The local farmer’s market used to be a social event that I only wandered through a few times per year because it was so crowded. In 2020, I found a few vendors doing a drive-through market and ordered from them every week. I learned how to make golden oyster mushrooms and what the hell garlic scapes are.

I learned a lot in the last 366 days, I realized while looking through my photos tonight on New Year’s Eve. I learned that not everything I made turned out the way I hoped. When I made a brussels sprouts recipe in January, I learned that I prefer a higher heat for crispier sprouts. When I made flourless brownies the next month, I learned that I needed a drying rack for some of my culinary creations. They crumbled into delicious pieces. I posted them anyway. 

Nicole Gustafson | The Tailgate Society Like everyone else, I made quarantine bread.

I learned that you do the best you can. Sometimes my “August” recipe was technically made in September. One month I just made bacon – but in my brand new cast iron skillet – because learning how to use an intimidating new tool was enough of a challenge. I tried to substitute one item for another when I made short ribs and it turned out badly. I ate it and moved on. I made blueberry pie bars and messed up a conversion, using way too many blueberries. I made them a second time when my brother returned home from basic training and they were perfect.

One of my favorite recipes I made all year was a lemon ricotta parm pasta from the New York Times. I made it in April when the weather was just warming up. I set up a deck chair outside, brought a blanket out, and plated the pasta nicely. I ate and tried to appreciate the air, the space, the moment. I took a selfie and didn’t feel like smiling, but it’s a good memory.

Nicole Gustafson | The Tailgate Society

I learned to give things a chance. I’ve hated tomatoes my whole life, but I started accepting them when I made caprese salads for lunch. I started throwing them in with rice and scallops, too. I also revised my opinion on veggie noodles, although I still think regular noodles are far superior. I did not change my mind on some things and that’s ok. I tried cucumbers for the tenth time and they still suck an awful lot.

In 2020, I was forced to cut many things out: some things I didn’t miss (commuting) and some I did (getting my nails done). It freed up a handful of minutes here and there, which I then invested in making food for myself. Some days it felt like a ridiculous injustice that, after all humans were dealing with at the moment, we still had to spend time working over a stove so that our bodies would keep moving for another day. On other days it was nice to spend time doing something for myself so that I could find a little joy in eating. I couldn’t control if people wore masks or if anyone I love got sick, but I could throw a rack of ribs in my instant pot and enjoy a nice dinner. 

Nicole Gustafson | The Tailgate Society

I wish that I were writing this and laughing, “Man, I only made it to May before giving up because I just got too busy.” I wish I could say how the food I made was a hit at parties instead of the reality that I stayed at home making recipes for myself not out of a commitment to personal growth, but because the rest of the world was dangerous and seemingly falling apart. It did not have to be this way, in general or for me to learn to cook. But caring for one’s self is a never-ending project. I hope and pray like hell that 2021 is gentler on us all, but I’m grateful that I took the time to learn another way to bring myself joy.

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Nicole Gustafson
Nicole Gustafson 56 Articles

Nicole was born in Chicago and raised in Des Moines. She took her talents to The Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism. You can find Nicole cheering on her favorite sports teams, hanging out with her dog, or finishing a Netflix marathon. Nicole is a big fan of #pitcherswhorake, fat guy TD's, and carbs. She's not a fan of mornings, winter, or vegetables and will complain to anyone who will listen.

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