An old friend of mine enjoys reminding me of a day, about 10 years ago, when he rebuffed my offer of Bisquick-made pancakes for brunch. He also pokes fun at the fact that I, now a full-fledged whole-food health nut, used to subsist on Swanson TV dinners. I remember those days and laugh as well, but I know why I ate that way. The truth is that I didn’t know how to cook, and I was afraid to try because a scorched pot roast or a tray of gummy muffins clearly meant I was a failure as a person.

Braised Winter Cabbage & Potatoes – Thug Kitchen Official Cookbook
Braised Winter Cabbage & Potatoes – Thug Kitchen Official Cookbook

That may sound extreme, but allow me to provide some background.

My grandmother was overprotective of my mother and so didn’t teach her to cook (knives and fire are involved, you know). When we lived with my father, we were both forced to cook completely bland or frozen foods for him, and suffered the wrath of his criticisms regardless.

After my parents divorced, my mother began working two jobs while going back to school, so we mostly fended for ourselves. Hamburger or Tuna Helper served as a “home cooked meal”, and in high school I spent more days than not at my friend’s house, having simple but lovingly-cooked dinners made my his mom instead.

Although the expression of it was unique, each of my parents had high expectations of me, and (perhaps unknowingly) closely watched and judged a lot of I did. Many undertakings during my formative years seemed to be met with criticism, “advice,” or passive-aggressive digs about how it was less than perfect. (As adults, some of my friends are still experiencing this from family members today!) When I started dating, I was naturally oversensitive to suggestions, and I read any tips for learning to cook from significant others as an outright attack. Since they knew future offers would cascade into a fight, most men in my life stopped trying to help and started keeping their mouths shut.

How My Cooking Became an Experiment

As I was making my first couple meals of the New Year, it occurred to me that one of the wonderful things my current partner taught me in 2014 was to always view cooking as an experiment. Now, any time I follow a recipe, modify one with my own unique substitutions, or just try making something up, I say, “Who knows what will happen? It’s an experiment!” If the dish turns out good, then that’s’ fine. But when it doesn’t (and there certainly are times), then there’s no worry! We may chat about reasons why the experiment didn’t work, and then decide whether it’s worth repeating with some changes. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not.

I was mincing garlic with the shiny new F. Dick knife I received as a Christmas present when I thought, “wow, that’s really a yogic way to view cooking!” I wondered: “What if I didn’t just view cooking as a series of experiments, but if I looked at my life as one?”

Looking at Your Life through a Qualitative Scientist’s Eye

I was surprised to discover there were so many parallels between cooking and living life this way! Here are just 7 ways you might look at life (and your cooking) through the eyes of scientist:

  1. Be curious. “What-would-happen-if” I used the herbs I have instead of the ones the recipe calls for? “What-would-happen-if” I added garlic to this dish? “Well, let’s try it and see!” Having a curious attitude increases your options and allows you to have more fun making choices. Feel overwhelmed with too many possibilities? Being curious allows you to pick one without feeling so attached to the outcome. “I wonder what would happen if I introduced myself to that handsome man at Sherry’s party?” Hmmm….
  1. Think out-of-the-box. It’s hard to experiment when you do things the same way every time. Curiosity is only possible when are able to dream up some new ways of looking at the world. Notice if you always make the same comfort dish, or you eat the same breakfast every time. Have leftover veggies or soup? “How would I feel if I ate that for breakfast?” “What if I had eggs for dinner?” “What if I brought this wild idea to my boss?” (Oh wait, that’s #3.)
  1. Don’t be afraid to take risks! Yes, you can still consult The Flavor Bible for a list of awesome substitutions, but if the one in bold isn’t calling to you, then choose one that’s less of a sure thing. Have a mess of random ingredients left over in the pantry or the vegetable drawer? Toss them together with something wet or garlicky—what’s the worst that can happen? Find a really loud skirt that makes you feel funky and happy? Nab it and wear it with confidence!
  1. Moderate your temperature. In our apartment, we struggle with a lopsided oven and a stove-top where a “low” setting doesn’t exist. I’ve learned that when broiling foods, a slow cook will have everything to the front of my cookie sheet. Do you get easily frustrated or “hot” over things that are out of your control? Take a few deep breaths, gaze at the flame of your gas burning stove-top, and cool off for a bit before saying or doing something you might regret. This little trick can save you from getting burnt.
  1. Develop more patience. This is a tough one, I know. But when you hurry a recipe you can end up with undercooked meat or a capsized soufflé. And with a little more patience for your man, he may turn out to be someone who does want to spend the rest of his life with you. Starting an exercise program slowly when you’ve been a couch potato for 10 years makes you less likely to get injured. Changing your eating habits with compassion and kindness for yourself when you overeat or eat something you wished you hadn’t will result in long-term shifts in perspective and your waistline. Patience really IS a virtue.
  1. Read the directions. Yes, this goes along with #5. Are you hurried while cooking, going through the motions, or being engaged and mindful while doing it? Taking in all the information that’s available to you and considering it before proceeding with appropriate action can help both your dishes and your relationships.
  1. Honor your intuition. Have that nagging feeling that one of your guests might be a vegetarian and you planned on roasting a bull? That the best thing for you right now is some alone time? Sometimes you can verify your gut feelings (see #6)—but other times you need to just surrender and change the plan because it doesn’t sit right. (Pun intended.)

Do you see even more parallels? If so, please share them here!

7 Ways to Experiment with Life: Where Learning to Cook & Learning to Live Intersect
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