When I returned in my early twenties from two years in Paris, I vowed to learn to cook. The mother of the French family I had stayed with made it all look so easy. She knew how to shop. She knew how to roast. She could sauté purée, flambé, and even make vinegar. She also knew how to wear a scarf, but that’s a different story.
Back stateside, one of the first books I bought was the classic Moosewood Cookbook, and one of the first recipes I tried was the curried squash and mushroom soup.
I did everything meticulously. Three cups of squash meant three cups. The instructions said to bake the squash first and then sauté the mushrooms, so that was the order I followed.
Making that same soup tonight brought me back, as it always does, to the tiny New York kitchen where I first decided—finicky, bewildered me—that I would somehow master this mystery of making food.
I was also congratulating myself. What had once seemed a bewildering list of ingredients and steps was now part of a simple pattern, one that I had repeated dozens of times with dozens of variations: Vegetables, liquid, flavorings, simmer. I still can’t tie a scarf to save my life, but soup, I can do.
I was so busy feeling smug about my own development that I neglected to pay attention to the rest of dinner. There was a noise that I had never heard before. Opening the oven a few minutes later, I found something that I had never done before.
For the first time in over twenty years of cooking, I had exploded a baked potato! The most rudimentary of cooking tasks, and it was now all over my oven.
There must be a lesson here somewhere. I’m not usually one for cosmic comeuppance—at least not with something as minor as cooking—but it felt like the universe was taking me back down a notch. Be mindful, the potato seemed to reproach me, be mindful even when you’re on autopilot. Be mindful even with the things you’ve done a thousand times before.
There is always something new, even in the simplest of tasks. There can always be surprise in the familiar. There is always something there to see, even if the universe has to plaster it all over the oven to help you see it, even if the universe takes you back to basics in the messiest of ways.