“I never liked cooking shows. They reminded me that I was bad at something.”
By Annabelle Williams
I press my thumb into the raised scar tissue on my right hand, absent mindedly. There’s one little lump where pinky meets palm, and another that puffs up slightly from the tip of my middle finger. The urgent care nurse told me to massage them out, but it’s been six years and they linger, reminders that I’m a terrible cook.
Those scars came one summer day right before my 15th birthday when I made soup in my kitchen at home, my father watching from the living room and reminding me to be careful. And I was—I chopped onions at half speed, pausing when my eyes welled. It was the lentils that got me. They were swimming in liquid in a pop-top can. Wrestling with the tab, I pulled the lid off before I knew what was happening, clenched it with my right hand, and pressed the sharp metal circle into my palm.
When I got home from urgent care, I asked if my family had eaten the soup. “There was blood in the pot,” my sister said. They’d thrown it all out.
When I was 11, having a “tea party,” I spilled boiling water all down the front of my body. Second-degree burns scalded my stomach and mottled my thigh. I sat in a bathtub full of lukewarm water and cried.
I never liked cooking shows. They reminded me that I was bad at something. I knew that I’d never get the salt, fat, acid, and heat quite right, that my mise en place wouldn’t look the way it does in Bon Appétit videos. And if I had one defining quality, it was that I always had to get everything right. I watched Chopped and couldn’t figure out what I would do with the ingredients, so I turned it off in frustration. I wanted so badly to be good at the things I did—really good, commendable—and cooking didn’t feel like something I could perfect.
I’d seen my mom do it my whole life, arranging plates just so and chopping vegetables with a predestined air of expertise. Her easy confidence made me feel completely incompetent. By the time I hit high school, I never even tried to cook anymore, subsisting instead on takeout and leftovers and protein bars and the meals my mother cooked for me.
I graduated to Soylent once I got to college, choking down the chalky liquid in lieu of meals. Despite the kitchen taunting me six steps away from my twin bed, I ate guacamole from plastic containers and went days without a hot meal. I hopped from fast-casual restaurant to Uber Eats drop-off until the act of eating felt optimized, devoid of meaning.
As I nibbled on a Sweetgreen salad or darted into club meetings to grab a slice of pizza, I was also adjusting to college—a place where, unsupervised, my perfectionism could bloom unchecked. I took on more responsibility—classes, jobs, clubs—than I should have, leaving barely enough time to wonder when I’d ever get a full night’s sleep. I constantly revised my LinkedIn profile and applied for more jobs than I could keep track of. Each morning I put on just enough makeup to keep people from noticing how my eyes puffed out. I switched from paper calendars to Google Calendar when I began spilling out of the allotted space. Food became an afterthought and cooking felt like an indulgence I didn’t deserve.
Last summer, I lived in a dorm about a mile from my summer internship, a place with no kitchen and antiseptic white walls. I found that I missed having a stove—missed doing things as simple as boiling water for plain pasta, or turning on an oven to bake a wheel of brie in butter, something my roommate and I used to do in winter when things got dark and a little bit sad. Instead I heated frozen eggplant with red peppers from Trader Joe’s in the microwave each day. After a few months the dish began to taste like rubber. I wolfed down chocolate peppermint LUNA bars to stave off hunger. When I was younger, they used to taste like Christmas.
When I got back to my West Philly apartment—my kitchen—I finally wanted to cook. Morning: eggs on Metropolitan Bakery sandwich bread, slathered in Cholula hot sauce. Night: pasta with sautéed onions and artichokes, tossed with cannellini beans. It was food for someone who barely scraped by in home economics—or “family and consumer science,” as it was styled at my high school—not the aspirational food I see on my Instagram feed. It was cooking as a banal necessity.
Yet sometimes I felt an urge to make cooking an event. A few weeks ago, I set aside a night to brown butter and pan-fry gnocchi, envisioning slender leaves of sage crisping in the pan. I even put it on my calendar—COOK!—and chose the recipe to celebrate the official beginning of fall, despite the 80-degree weather outside.
I browned the butter a little too brown and flecks of it stuck to the ridges in the gnocchi. When I seasoned it, I poured the salt in for a millisecond too long. And I know the sage wasn’t as fresh as it should have been. But eating it still felt transcendent, not so much an accomplishment as a nourishment. I hoarded the leftovers for a week.
When I cook now, I chop onions roughly. I think more about consolidating pots and plates than I do about presentation. If our bowls aren’t washed, I use Tupperware. While certain friends post pictures of their artfully curated meals, I chew on homely tangles of pasta. But I’m proud of them, proud of the fact that I’ve found a way to see my body as something more than just a hungry thing demanding to be fed, proud of the fact that I cook without regard for perfection.
And I find that when I don’t cook—when I subsist on Sweetgreen and almonds and cold pizza—I feel worse. Cooking used to be a hazard, a fearful thing I’d only try as a last resort. But now the ritual of it feels like a recourse.
Setting aside the time to make a meal that requires multiple burners on the stove may be a simple mark of adulthood. That’s one way to look at it. But it’s also proof to myself that I can do something, start to finish, and not worry about making it perfect. I don’t fixate on the minutiae; I do my best. It doesn’t matter if the eggs crisp too hard at the edges or I slip and nick my finger. It’s not a thing I can win.
This past summer, I took a cooking class with my aunt and cousins. I started a spectacular grease fire and took twice as long as the others in the room to drape pasta into sauce. At the end of the night, we sat down to eat. Rain poured down outside and I looked at what we’d made. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mine.
Annabelle Williams is a College senior.