10 Things Cooking Has Taught Me About Life

A chef and a food writer finds strength, insight, and comfort in such simple acts as sharing a cupcake.

By Kim O’Donnel
Dried-Cherry and Italian Sausage StuffingJohn Kernick

Here's what I've learned from my hours in the kitchen.  


1.  Small gestures can make a big difference. The day after the Virginia Tech shootings, in April 2007, when my community in northern Virginia was shaken with grief, I found myself baking a batch of lemon cupcakes with milk-chocolate frosting. As I admired their glistening tops, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could a tiny cupcake make the world feel like a more tender place, even for one bite? As I delivered the cupcakes to my neighbors, the smiles on their faces were proof that, yes, indeed it could.


2.  Cheap thrills are closer than you think. In this BlackBerry-crazed world, growing your own food, even just a little herb garden, can help you appreciate the present moment: the sweet delight of that first cherry tomato, the heady perfume of fresh mint. During the holidays, I am always thankful for that backyard rosemary when I pluck it from the bush and add it to apple pies, roasted meats, and white-bean bruschetta.


3.  Control is overrated. When my fiancé and his stuff moved into my one-bedroom apartment, I was OK with the books and the CDs, the quirky framed prints, and even the oddball knickknacks he squeezed onto my already crowded shelves. But when it came to my kitchen, nothing was allowed to disrupt the order and flow. So when, a few weeks before we were married, he bought a knife without consulting me, I nearly had a stroke. Of course, my response symbolized my many years as a single woman who had only herself to consider. If I was going to let him into my life, I quickly realized, I had to let him into my kitchen, too.


4.  Sing if you must, but quit thinking so much. Despite my culinary training, I couldn’t make a pizza dough to save my life. It was either too tough, too doughy, or riddled with holes. Then a friend visiting from Australia, who loved to sing while he cooked pizza, showed me the error of my ways: In my stressed-out quest to make it perfect, I was overkneading the dough. When I stopped fussing over it, I got it right.


5.  There are always second chances. A dear friend of mine died suddenly of a heart attack in early 2007. For months I had intended to cook for him, and now it was too late. Or was it? In tribute, I baked him a marble cake and took it to his funeral, where his friends and loved ones stayed behind to eat it and exchange stories about this wonderful man.


6.  Substance beats style every time. You might think a trained chef has a gleaming kitchen filled with expensive appliances. Well, I spent the past four years in an apartment with a kitchen so lilliputian that even making room for a toaster was out of the question. My husband, who found bread crisped in the oven an unworthy substitute for the real stuff, pleaded for mercy. So I bought a $3 collapsible tin toaster from a camping store. Not only did it take up hardly any space but it also toasted bread to crunchy perfection.


7.  We all have what it takes to create something. The legendary cookbook author Edward Espe Brown taught me a lot about the creative aspects of preparing food―how the sheer physical act of it is an artistic expression, like painting or dancing. Now, that might sound a bit lofty when you’re racing to get dinner on the table. But if you think of cooking as creating something, even when you’re making the most basic meal, you might get more enjoyment out of your time in the kitchen―where we all possess some creative ability, however great or small.


8.  Communicate, any way you can. Two years ago, we weren’t sure my kid brother was going to live. He is fine today, but back then, powerless to help him, I placed his photo on the kitchen counter and taught him aloud how to make meat sauce, step-by-step, as if he were next to me. Although the conversation was one-sided, having his smiling face staring up from that photo as I stirred the sauce helped me through one of the most difficult experiences of my life.


9.  Your instinct may not be the best, but it’s yours. A fearsome chef-instructor at a cooking school in Italy once gave an assignment to me and my classmate Max to make risotto for lunch. While I stirred, chef Sergio sternly reminded us to add salt before serving. “How much?” we asked. “Enough,” he replied and walked away. We felt lost, but lunch was imminent, so we took turns salting and tasting until we both agreed it was just right―then high-fived to our accomplishment. Did chef Sergio like it? No. But then his food was always too salty for my taste.


10.  Less really is more. Exhibit A: the grilled cheese sandwich. If I cooked my last meal over a skillet, ironing two pieces of Cheddar-stuffed bread together with some strong mustard, I would be smiling wide.


Keep Reading
More musings from food writers in Simply Stated.

More essays (like "In Defense of Male Clutter) in Life Lessons.

Read More About:Inspiration & Motivation

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