A few weeks ago I made a cucumber salad and it felt like the most ambitious and intrepid gesture of my entire life thus far, and maybe it was.
There’s a line in Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn that I think about a lot: “I had gotten to the point where I simply could not make a bad vinaigrette.” I, too, have sometimes entered this exalted state, where instinct and muscle memory guide me more than recipes or conscious thought, and I turn out the same perfect dressing every time. This sweet spot lasts about a week, or maybe less, and then it begins to ebb away. The same confidence that makes it possible is also what causes me to slip: I get cocky and stop paying close attention, and soon enough I serve a salad that’s wilty with vinegar or salted just shy of being inedible. All my cooking goes in waves like this. Maybe my whole life goes in waves like this. Sometimes I think the problem is that I live in the hope that sitcom logic, where every mistake turns out to have been for the best, might operate in real life, too. But it’s probably more that when I get overconfident, I get sloppy, and then I get discouraged, and then I give up and buy a rotisserie chicken.
Having a newborn added a number of obstacles to my preexisting shortcomings. The first, most obvious problem was that it was hard to come by raw materials: A lot of good cooking is about good shopping; running out of chicken stock or lemons can derail any chef. But leaving the house was now chancy and fraught. The shortest outing required negotiation, advance planning, a checklist of conditions that needed to all be fulfilled simultaneously and rarely were. By the time I got the baby and myself dressed, fed, packed and in a reasonably okay mood, it was time to change a diaper, take a snooze, feed and start the cycle again. Leaving the house without the baby was harder; for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t even attempt it. Giving someone else a shopping list was fundamentally unsatisfying. Inevitably one crucial thing got left off the list, or swapped out for an inferior brand. Using FreshDirect seemed like it would be accepting defeat prematurely; half the reason I reason I bother to live in New York City is that we have access to such quirky and good food shopping.
In my distant past life, I used to shop recreationally for a single perfect ingredient: the most buttery Sicilian olive oil, a half-pound of luxurious ground lamb from an old-school butcher. Now I go into Trader Joe’s and shop like I’m packing for the Oregon Trail.
The other prerequisite of decent cooking, it turns out, is having the ability to let your mind wander enough to come up with ideas about what might be delicious in a couple of hours, to rifle through a mental rolodex of recipes and formulas, to allow the ingredients that did make their way into my possession—a pile of CSA eggplant, a box of pasta—to generate an idea for a meal. My postpartum mind wasn’t destroyed, it was just busy learning how to do a lot of other things, many of which had to do with figuring out how and when and how often to feed my fussy baby, rather than my fussy self.
To make matters worse, I was cooking more than ever before. Trapped at home and thoroughly sick of my neighborhood’s two non-poisonous takeout options, I had to cook dinner if we were going to eat it. My husband is great at a lot of domestic things—I don’t think I’ve vacuumed once since we moved in together—but cooking isn’t one of them. It was up to me to feed us, but what I was feeding us got worse and worse: browned scrambled eggs, waterlogged vegetables, defrosted whatever. After spending an hour and a half pleading with the baby to sleep, I wandered around the kitchen in a fugue state, tossing things together haphazardly, chopping them in a way that I hoped could pass for “rustic,” letting a sauce or a sauté burn on the bottom or eating it when it was still half-raw because I was just so hungry I couldn’t wait another minute.
After a month or so of ravenous breastfeeding hunger and gross meals, I started putting my scant intellectual resources to work trying to figure out how to get out of this rut. I didn’t want to eat another overcooked defrosted salmon fillet or a greasy pasta or a salty salad. I wanted to get my mojo back, to get into that perfectly emulsified vinaigrette place and stay there, ideally forever. If I couldn’t master this simple act of feeding myself, how would I ever be a mom who feeds a family—a mom like my own, who worked full days at a challenging job but still managed to feed us things like homemade mac and cheese, steamed broccoli with lemon and butter, vegetable lasagna with an unexpected hint of lemon in the ricotta? I tried to think about what, in the past, has recharged my batteries and given me the new ideas that make daily life in the kitchen less about drudgery and more about flexing a creative muscle. Cookbooks, especially ones that read like novels, have always helped, as do novels and memoirs that read like cookbooks: Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, Laurie Colwin’s essays. I started making a conscious effort to get back into the habit of reading my favorite recipe blogs and not just looking at the pictures like they were brochures for touring a country I’m not going to visit until my son is in college.
And then, a few weeks ago, I came across an appealing recipe online. It appealed to me because it was dead simple: a dish of “smashed” cucumbers with a sesame oil vinaigrette. I miraculously remembered to pick up the sesame oil on a trip to restock the freezer and pantry with chicken thighs and boxes of butter and cans of beans and tomatoes. In my distant past life, I used to shop recreationally for a single perfect ingredient: the most buttery Sicilian olive oil, a half-pound of luxurious ground lamb from an old-school butcher. Now I go into Trader Joe’s and shop like I’m packing for the Oregon Trail. But I drew the line at buying the thin-skinned Persian cucumbers that come five to a Styrofoam pack. Instead I waited to get a long European one from the farmers’ market, even though that meant structuring my entire day around the trip and listening to a hungry baby wail all the way home.
We got the baby to bed. I was so hungry I wanted to eat my own arm, so tired I wanted to reheat some chicken nuggets and nod off while eating them lying down on the couch. I rubbed off the long, twisty cucumber’s weird little white bristles as I washed it, and then I cut it into chunks lengthwise and smashed out the seeds. I put it in a sieve over a bowl with a bag of ice on top to drain it while I whisked together the vinaigrette, measuring each teaspoon precisely, determined not to let my slapdash tendencies spoil my effort. It took all my meager mental energy, but in those moments of measuring and whisking I felt more like myself again than I had in weeks. Or maybe “like myself” isn’t quite it. I felt less like my insane alien new-mother self and more like some potential future self, a combination of selves, in flux but keeping it together for the time being.
I served the resulting salad alongside some rice and a stir-fry that I’ve been making since it appeared in a mid-2000s issue of Cook’s Illustrated. My husband ate it without really noticing what it was (unlike me, he doesn’t really care what he’s eating as long as there’s a lot of it and it’s food), but I wasn’t looking to impress him. I took my time eating the craggy cucumber pieces in their spicy-slick dressing, its salt and sweetness in perfect balance. It was solid, not spectacular; it would be a nice thing to bring to a barbeque. I felt like I could probably replicate it without looking at the recipe next time, but I vowed to use the recipe anyway, until I’m sure my groove is back, and then again when it inevitably recedes, again and again for the rest of my—our—life.