I love my Granny’s cooking. (And I’m not just saying that because she reads this blog. Hi!) When I was growing up, we would go stay with her and my Grandad, and she would make delicious food. Some of it was the kind of thing you really only like when you’re a kid, like the times when she would let us mix a bunch of different cereals in our bowls in the morning, stiring together Lucky Charms and Trix and Cookie Crisp (thank goodness my palate has matured). But other dishes, like her goulash, were straight up comfort food.
Once I started cooking on my own, I would ask my Granny for her recipes. I have to smile when I see them because, you see, my Granny doesn’t need her recipes written down. She makes everything to taste. This used to make me crazy: I’m a girl who likes to know how much of something to put in a dish. Especially in my early days of cooking, I needed to know how much salt was too much, how many ounces of any particular liquid needed to be added. “To taste” was a foreign concept to me.
As I’ve grown up, and as I’ve cooked more, “to taste” has become a friendlier acquaintance. I have many dishes where I just throw stuff in a pan, saute to my heart’s desire, and eat. I don’t measure because I don’t need to.
I realized, last night, as I taught my friend Joanna how to make granola, that I was doing what my Granny did. I have a piece of paper with a recipe on it, which is fine, but I deviate from it. I don’t measure the nuts, I add wheat germ by the spoonfuls (wheat germ isn’t even listed on the recipe, but I add it anyway), and once I begin stirring, I add extra maple syrup if I deem it necessary. How do I deem it necessary? To taste.
I have begun a writing routine today. I can proudly say that I sat through two hours of ass-to-seat time and wrote stupid ideas that may or may not grow into good ideas. I grew depressed, I stared at my wall, I changed locations (from my desk to my bed), I wrote notes to myself about how much my ideas sucked, and I finally cracked open my black Moleskine journal and started writing to myself, the way I used to, the way I have learned to after years in an MFA program. The Moleskine is the place where I can throw a temper tantrum, turn the page, and then begin the work of calming down. I wrote kind words of reason to myself, reminding myself that no one writes a novel in a day, or even a story, and that a writing routine only becomes a routine through repetition, that I’m making a date with myself ___ days per week to sit and write and stare and do the whole blasted process over again. One day of writing things that don’t really go anywhere right this very moment does not make me a failed writer; it makes me a writer. Period.
One of my favorite authors (and teachers), Tayari Jones, has a lovely blog on which she freely shares writing advice and moments of solidarity. After my two-hour writing roller coaster today, I checked out her blog and found this lovely blog post:
starting a new novel is frustrating like trying to start a roll of packing tape. you just scratch and scratch trying to find a seam. then you raise a little scrap, pull, and it shreds, but you start scratching again, and it’s a little easier this time. you lift a another little piece & easy, easy, careful, gently tug.
What this says to me is writing is a lot like cooking my Granny’s recipes. There’s a great deal of work that’s done to taste. Through a repeated effort at a recipe, we learn how much salt and pepper to put in the yolks for deviled eggs, how much wheat germ to put in granola, or how much water to add to oatmeal. Likewise, through repeated effort at writing, we learn how much of a pity party to allow ourselves (I found that writing “This all sucks” twice was pretty much the limit on how much self-pity I was allowed today), we learn when to switch from a chair to a couch to a coffee shop to a bed to a corner to a balcony and back to a chair again. We learn how to find the beginning on a roll of tape.
When I make granola, the apartment fills with a sweet, warm aroma of maple syrup. The granola is crunchy and full of little clusters (thank you, wheat germ) and because I stir it every fifteen minutes for about an hour, it comes out evenly toasted and delicious. I can make this without looking at the recipe, and I never have to worry that it won’t come out right. I know it will. I know the mechanics of it. Adding oil and sugar to oats, nuts, and wheat germ will yield a moist granola mixture that, when baked, will toast up, forming little flavorful clusters that are delicious when mixed with yogurt.
I often think that being comfortable in a kitchen comes down to confidence. Once you’ve messed up everything from baked chicken to birthday cakes, the errors don’t bother you as much. Burning your fingers sucks, but it happens. Spilling everything on the floor sucks, but it happens. And it doesn’t stall me. I don’t fear spills and burns and ruined dishes; they’re part of the game.
Why, then, do I find myself scared of foibles in writing? I know the mechanics; I just need the confidence. That’s where the routine comes in. The repeated effort at writing. Learning to write to taste.
3 cups oats (old fashioned, not instant)
1 cup pecans, chopped
1 cup other nut (I like walnuts, but I’m sure hazelnuts or almonds could work too), chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar (light or dark)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or canola)
Stir together dry ingredients first, then add syrup, sugar, and oil. Pour out onto cookie sheet and spread gently to form a fairly even layer.
Bake at 300 degrees for one hour, stirring every fifteen minutes. Be careful not to stir too rough or you’ll end up with granola all over the bottom of your stove and you’ll break up those beautiful clusters.