Lessons Learned from Burnt Garlic Bread
by Matt LaBombard
For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when Mom stops cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry, and lovingly tosses us into the cold, hard world to see if we’ll sink or swim. That time is one that I’ve been navigating for the past few years, and it’s brought along an array of experiences, both good and bad.
For most young professionals, the beginning stages of “adulthood” focus on finding one’s calling. A long-term career path seems hazier than a smoggy Los Angeles morning, and navigating it can lead to multiple brick walls.
Along the way, you may stumble over garbage, dog poop, change directions many times. You may be left wondering if you’ll ever come close to being like Oprah, or if you should settle for corporate America’s monotonous 9-to-5. Dating becomes more of a chore than anything else. It can feel like a complicated game of Minesweeper; each new date is a new click. With any luck you’ll avoid the bombs and find the sweet spots that clear the board for your next move.
Somehow, I’ve been surviving this usually stressful period in life. My career fog seems to be slightly dissipating. I’ve sifted through roommates, tossing out the bad and keeping the good. And dating… well, dating is still a game of Minesweeper. What has made me stronger than most individuals my age is that I have one skill that has kept me sane and afloat, a skill more valuable than an Oprah Aha! moment. I can cook.
Cooking has taught me how to become self-sufficient, budget my coins, and even make friends. But as lucky as I’ve been, many of my roommates and friends haven’t been so fortunate. While I’ve been busy making five-star dishes out of boring pantry items, my roommates were getting down with boxed macaroni and cheese and frozen pre-packaged meals. In other words, I was making it work like a winning contestant from Project Runway while my homies were in need of a serious makeover. So, as any caring friend would do, I set out to give my friends the culinary makeover that they so desperately desired.
At first these lessons seemed pretty basic, but I was in for a rude awakening. As I introduced my friends to tasks that would need no explanation to experienced cooks, I realized that what seemed simple to me was essentially rocket science to these culinary newbies. Boil water. Chop an onion. Whisk the mixture. Scramble the eggs. Every time that I stepped into the kitchen for what I thought would be a basic tutorial, I was more or less thrust into a real-life episode of Worst Cooks in America.
I was, obviously, Anne Burrell, wincing at every wrong mistake, pulling my bleach-blonde hair out as my friends repeatedly burned the garlic bread.
But I was also the Anne Burrell who could see glimpses of hope in my friends’ abilities to make delicious meals. As they cooked, stirred, and whisked their way to a better understanding of culinary tasks, I could see them having small Aha! moments of their own.
Regardless of the successes that my friends had in our cooking lessons, there were definitely times that I had to go all Abby Lee Miller on them, and directly state that they sucked at what they were doing. Take, for instance, a particular friend of mine who refused to properly hold a knife. In the kindest, most brutally honest way possible, I explained that if he continued to cut produce like Freddie Kruger he was bound to cut off almost all of his fingers.
Then there were the friends who simply could not understand the importance of following a recipe.
To an experienced cook, a recipe is a step-by-step map to a delicious meal. Like all other maps, a recipe is meant to be followed in sequential order. My friends follow recipes like the ball of a pinball machine, bouncing from side to side, top to bottom. As I watched them begin a recipe before having all of their ingredients in place, I felt the need to pop a few Xanax to deal with the stress and anticipation of the fire department arriving. But as we walked through each step of every recipe, my friends began to realize that cooking is as easy as following a map, and the treasure is so worth it.
Finally, there was the one universal downfall of all my friends; it didn’t matter what we were cooking, they could not understand the importance of keeping a kitchen clean. They were Tasmanian devils in the kitchen. Tomato sauce splattered all over the stove, onion peels fell to the floor, and cans and cardboard boxes were tossed aside for the Merry Maids to clean up after they finished. Of course I was the Merry Maid, and there was never anything merry about it.
But, as we cooked, they learned. With each new recipe came a new set of skills and a new taste of confidence. I began to gain a sense of pride with every successful dish that my friends produced. As many times as I wanted to rip my hair out, I equally found myself cheering them on from the sidelines.
I’d become the soccer mom and they were my all-star athletes. I was reminded of a time in my life before my mom tossed me out into the cold, tough world. I saw in them a younger Matt, one who wasn’t so self-sufficient and didn’t know about budgeting.
One who would tear a kitchen apart simply to make toast. One who didn’t understand how to hold a knife and would burn something at the blink of an eye. They reminded me that cooking is a team process. Sure, you can cook alone, but anyone who cooks for pleasure does so to share with others.
As I watched them learn to make delicious meals, I realized that my friends were learning a skill that they could carry with them for the rest of their lives.
They were practicing something that would help them bond with guests, in-laws, and their future children. I knew that what I was sharing with them was more than just a lesson. As they say, give a man a fish, he is fed for a day. Teach a man to fish and he is fed for a lifetime.
As I reflect on the moments of fear, laughter, and joy in my cooking lessons, I’ve come to realize that anyone can cook. With that, I’ve built an easy-as-pie menu that any novice or expert can enjoy.
From drinks to dessert, I offer you a basic outline for a simple dinner party. Make just one or try them all. Along the way you’ll realize that cooking isn’t just easy, it’s fun! And you may find yourself having a few Aha! moments, exclaiming in your best Oprah voice: “You get an Arnold Palmer! You get an Arnold Palmer! Everyone gets an Arnold Palmer!”