As the few I am privileged to call friends may know, the last few weeks for me have been... trying. My day job workload was suddenly halved, a frightening feeling that proved to be temporary as my project list then tripled over the next three days. I recently started a dream part-time gig at a restaurant under an extremely talented but exacting local chef (I'm glossing over this story for now). It's an exciting and rewarding privilege but nonetheless challenging, demanding of as much mental and physical penance as I can afford. It takes up my Saturdays, which cuts the weekend I am accustomed to in half. I don't mind busy schedules; I'm used to them and can handle the lack of sleep, even if it does put me in a social funk. Anna is also an insane person in her own way; right now her successful photography business is kicking her ass, and she is kicking right back. I couldn't be more proud of her.
Of course, this cuckoo schedule does mean we basically never see one another. Our relationship is thankfully stronger than ever, and we know how to recognize any warning signs of stress; when our tanks are a little too exasperated, we fill them with a date night here and a "sick" day there to keep the machine of marriage running. It can be tough, but everything's moving forward. Everything is going ok.
Then I get the call from my dad.
My father and I have an interesting relationship, as he had with his father and so on. Dad issues run deep in our family. We don't get to be around each other enough since the divorce; when we do it's awkward, always sentimental, sometimes confrontational, but often just a lot of fun. Ultimately we get along because he is a loner who is as fucked up as I am, but he also can be a little fragile. So you can imagine how quickly the RPM needle dropped to zero, how the record screeched to a stop when I heard his tired voice, exhausted from crying. The news was jolting: his brother had attempted suicide.
The panging aura in the words unsaid was all too familiar. Dad had tried himself when I was fifteen; when mom told me that day, it forever changed me as you can imagine. We'd talked about it (kind of), moved on (kind of), but it's an indelible stigma that I don't think even he has come to terms with. Regardless, dad still has a big heart for his family and he had been very close to his brother. He was also barely a year removed from the loss of another brother to a drug overdose. I knew he was not taking this well, and I had to be there for him. I made calls, left work, picked him up. I did my best to comfort. But because of the nature of the attempt, our morbid suspicions were confirmed when we arrived at the hospital: the damage was irreversible. And just like that, as quickly as we learned about it, it was over. The family said their goodbyes and ended life support the next day. We made arrangements, went to the funeral. Then we went home.
But for reasons I wasn't quite sure of, in the time between that first call and the drive home from the cemetery, all that repressed anger and confusion from when I was fifteen resurfaced. I drank myself sick that night, and then again the following night. I spaced out with depression. I had a slight panic attack in the stairwell at work. I had dreams - nightmares, really - where I was walking on broken legs. I felt host once again, so unwelcomely, to that generational curse I wanted absolutely nothing to do with but had done nothing to escape from for the last decade. I was self-absorbed, terrified I would end up the same way, a feeling I hadn't felt in years. Obviously, when I hung up the phone that first time, that tank that had been running on fumes finally ran out of gas.
As home cooks we all have our first love, the thing that drew us in, the revelatory "aha" first taste that challenged our self-conceptions about who we are and what we could make. Once we make that first exciting discovery, we practice it ad nauseam. We memorize it. We perfect it. We let others try it and gleefully feed off their admiration. We self-educate. And then we graduate to the next thing.
For me, the first time I made stock was my revelation that I could and wanted to cook. It was the litmus test that verified me. After that first time, I made stock whenever I could. I made a lot of stock. I made a lot of different stocks. I made huge batches and froze it, simply to thaw it out and use it up as quickly as I had made it. I gave it away as a gift. It became such a motor skill that it was no longer a recipe for me, but a technique I owned. That technique emboldened me as I graduated to bigger and more substantial things like the basics of meats and better salads, practicing perfect pasta and pie doughs, awakening the bread beast within. And then, like we all do, I graduated to the next thing. I remember the naive skepticism I had as Fergus Henderson explained how to compose crystal-clear consommés. Julia Child taught me about aspics and sauces, and the versatility and elegance of the potato. French Laundry fascinated me with infused oils and coulis. I learned about spumas and soy lecithins. I was inspired to hear Wylie Dufresne passionately go full nerd over eggs. I fell in love with my idols' idols, the likes of Escoffier and Larousse. I fell in love with the chemistry and the history. I was cooking's junkie. I still am.
But I remember the times when the love affair badly needed a reset. The times I crashed and burned.
Roast chicken was a real nemesis when I first started cooking. I was so obsessed with worry about overcooking it, that the simple task of measuring internal temperatures became too distressing for me to function. I can't tell you how many exciting and expensive grocery trips devolved into manic depression the instant I cut into the underdone inner thigh of my beautiful roasted bird, or bit into the delicious crusty exterior of my brined fried chicken leg to reveal a nettling rosy-red center. To me, that meant I had failed on a fundamental level, that I wouldn't be able to feed anyone. It was mocking me: You incompetent fuckhead. (One time, I threw a whole still-hot chicken directly in the trash, sheet sheet pan and all, and pouted for the rest of the night.)
Eventually I regained focus, I resolved to make myself do it again, even if the outcome was the same. Naturally with each success and the increase in confidence, the times I did fail I learned to handle with grace. Every challenge met and passed, every first-time success with a large-scale cooking project gently carved away at my insecurity. When I messed up, instead of having some bipolar mental miscarriage and flogging myself repeatedly, I learned to accept and move on.
And the next day, I'd gather the bones of my failed experiment, cut my carrots and onions, and I'd make stock. And whereas lately I may have been treating it like just a pot of boiled scraps, like a lesser element, now I'd take my time and love the process.
What I didn't realize about that phone call - when I ran out of gas - was that I entered my default mode. Where nothing made sense or mattered. I was binary zero, tired of feeling tired. The motivation is gone. It's a mental creative plateau, barely a few feet off the ground. It's a dangerous place to be, because it tempts you with an easy way out. It's simple to sit at home watching bad tv, isolating yourself from every person and feeling. The easy way out is to take your failures as an unforgivable weakness and just quit, leaving your talent and self-esteem behind you on your way out the door as you check out from being human. It's easy to make stupid decisions and blame it on what's happening around you rather than being responsible. I ultimately do want to do good things, and be a better person, and that means owning that I go completely mental from time to time. Failure is being human. In my case, I couldn't have done it without my best friend there to help me.
I can remember being in so many greater or lesser states of those funks over the past few years, and handling it different ways. When I gloomily meander in my own stress and self-consciousness, looking for a way back to sanity, I always return to my first cooking loves. These recent weeks were an ominous but cathartic reminder about the worst of times: when life is dealing shit hands and we get pushed to the point of breaking, we can roll over and quit... or we can get sober, accept it, flip the universe a firm middle finger and go back to living the only way we know how to. That's moving forward.