Nobody’s Fault But My Own
by Nina Tarnawsky
I’m jealous of my cats. I know it’s shocking that a young, single woman on the Vineyard lives alone with her two cats and has something to say about it, but hear me out. These two eat the same meal every day and they don’t even have to prepare it. I’m sure this is horrifying—this is a food magazine, after all—but I have to confess: I don’t love cooking.
A trip to the grocery store on-Island is like running the gauntlet. Not only am I almost certain to run into someone that I know, but everywhere I look there are flawless pictures of enticing meals on the covers of food magazines: ‘Simple, Healthy Dinners You Can Make At Home’; ‘Cook Like A Pro!’; ‘One Pot Dinners Even A Dolt Like You Can Make’ they claim. My stomach anticipates the joys of eating that gorgeous chicken al diavolo, but my brain knows better. My skills are limited and I’m just never going to make that happen.
I love eating. I still talk about the brisket, sausage, and pickled red onion sandwich I had in Austin (at La Barbecue—their French is just wrong, but their food is so right). I spend all winter waiting for Smoke ’n’ Bones to re-open, so that I can have fried pickles and baby back ribs and beans and cornbread and coleslaw and on, and on. My passion for food is an actual constant torment to those around me. If I’m hungry, you’re going to hear about it. If I had a great burger at Offshore last night, you’re going to hear about it. If I just discovered a new ice cream, you’re definitely going to hear about that, too. (The Black Cherry Amaretto from Haagen-Daz’s new ‘Gelato’ line is going to change your life—and no, it’s not really gelato.)
And it’s to everyone’s further torment that my love for eating far outstrips my love of cooking. I am a decidedly amateur cook. I operate under the assumption that I have only one palette to please—my own—and I can usually manage it. There are some dishes that I know I can make well, but they are not legion and I can’t eat the same thing every day. Frankly, having to cook day after day takes what should be fun and makes it a chore—one you have to complete on an empty stomach, night after night after night.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I spent weekends with my father. Every Friday night, as he cooked dinner (usually penne and sausage in a simple tomato sauce alongside a steamed artichoke), we would listen to “Which Way, L.A.?” on KCRW. Much of the cooking that he taught me was basic: boil the water; sauté the onions; pre-heat the oven. (No matter what those food magazines tell you, cooking can be like taking the same route home every day—you can do most of it without really being aware.) I was just a kid—more interested in watching Space Jam for the 80th time than learning to cook, but based on those Fridays with my father, it is my unscientific conclusion that amateur chefs’ brains need somewhere to go when we’re cooking.
I attended college in the culinary hotspot of eastern Scotland. (Truly, you cannot know the full repertoire of the potato until you’ve spent considerable time in Scotland.) I lived in a small apartment with my friend, Laura. Laura was, and remains, a solid cook with a nice store of recipes in her wheelhouse, but her greatest gift was teaching me, however inadvertently, how to turn cooking into a party every night. While we joked and gossiped, we would always have an LP playing on Laura’s bright red record player; pork chops sizzling in the pan were accompanied by Iggy Pop or Belle and Sebastian (Laura’s choice); Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones (mine). When Laura graduated and left the record player behind, I’d find myself singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” as I waited for the water to boil, or the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” while I turned a steak over. “When The Levee Breaks” (turned up loud) would accompany burgers frying in the pan (and a cold beer in my hand). With no audience, I allowed my inner diva to see the light of day. My true love for Cher was realized over a lamb chop as I belted “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.”
Laura lives in Texas now and the record player stayed behind after my own graduation, but music has become integral to my current cooking routine. Thanks to her I let my freak flag fly when I cook. With a bee in one hand and the volume control in the other, pasta for one has become a solo show. Neil Young and I have spent many an evening together mining for a “Heart of Gold” as water boiled over the pot. Paul Butterfield and I agreed that there were “Too Many Drivers At The Wheel,” this winter as I sniffed ground beef to see if it was still good. (It wasn’t.) I do still try new things—I’m not quite the Statler and Waldorf of the kitchen, but I’ve found that “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” by Paul Butterfield’s Better Days is a good accompaniment when things go wrong.
I can’t always work up the energy to try a new recipe, but I’m a voracious consumer of music—it adds variety, which is the real spice of life, after all. Now that summer’s rolled around, I can’t stop myself from grilling, tunes or no tunes. (I try to let my kind neighbor, Mrs. Kenney, have a peaceful evening.) If only I were tough enough to grill in the winter—until then I’ll “Bite The Bullet” with my pal, Mr. Young, and sing my way through culinary catastrophe.