Top Chef is my current favorite TV show. It’s exhilarating to watch incredibly talented people brought to their limits while making really yummy looking food, episode after episode. I’m fascinated by Padma’s outfits and have totally bought into the drama that the editors so deftly create, left to wonder who made the best food and who has to pack their knives and go. And except for the couple of seasons when the contestants are mean, it’s usually good clean fun.
One of the recurring themes on Top Chef is that none of the chefs like to bake. Baking challenges are met with groans and cuts to side interviews with one of the chefs saying something like, “Baking is the WORST. I knew this day would come. I might go home today.”
As best I can tell, the reason so many chefs dislike baking is that it is so hard to get feedback on whether or not your cake or souffle will turn out. At least not until it’s too late. You can taste the batter before you put it in the oven, but until that toothpick is inserted, it’s hard to know if your food will cook through, your bread will rise, and your flan will set.
For example, I once made chocolate chip cookies, a recipe I have pretty much perfected, and they were completely flat, except for the chips. I realized too late that the baking soda was old. How could I have known that by tasting the batter? And if I had tried to pass those cookies in a competition like Top Chef, you better believe I’d be sent packing.
Anyway, what does all of this have to do with anything?
Well, for one thing, I have been baking a decent amount lately, and it has got me thinking to how alike living is to baking. And more specifically the living I’ve been thinking about lately is parenting.
One of the hardest things about parenting is that it’s really hard to tell if you’re doing it well or not. I mean, you reassure yourself over an evening glass of wine that the child is safe and fed, and that counts for something. But you know all the while that there’s a 100% chance that there will be things that you don’t get right, wounds that your child will bring back to you and hold in your face in two decades, quirks that you find endearing that your child finds intolerable.
It’s inevitable and it’s terrifying.
But how in the world are you supposed to know if your parenting baking soda has gotten old?
I have never been the type to read parenting books. I get overwhelmed as soon as someone introduces me to any multi-step plan guaranteed to give results. Usually the step one assumes a level of proficiency that eludes me (like have a clean home or car, just for example).
I am always hyper-aware of the Tom Colicchios of the parenting world (or really, of the world) ready to critique and nitpick. Not that I even need a Tom Colicchio. Most times I do a pretty good job of tearing myself apart without any help.
What I guess we’re left with is a whole lot of ambiguity. Gilda Radner has a great quote, “Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”
Truthfully, I rarely think of ambiguity as delicious. Annoying? Yes. Scary? Absolutely. Delicious? Not so much.
But also, ambiguity is inevitable.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how it would look if I loved myself as much as I loved my son. How would I talk to myself after eating a full chocolate bar? How would I respond to myself when our bedtime routine still sucks after two and a half years? What would I say to encourage myself when I meet yet another person who seems to have arrived at my life goals and is five years younger than me?
What would I say to my son when he says that he just isn’t sure if the cake is going to turn out or if he’s just a bad baker and should pack his knives and go home?
For one thing, I think I would say to stop listening to the Tom Colicchios.
Instead of feeling like I’ve failed at life for eating a candy bar, I might say something about how delicious candy is, and how sometimes it’s good to let ourselves have a treat. Instead of hiding my shame about bedtime, I might comment about how nice it can be to get in the extra snuggle time.
And when the toothpick comes back gooey, I might just say the cake needs a little more time to bake. The story isn’t finished yet. That we don’t know what will happen.
I might say something obnoxious about delicious ambiguity.
The truth as best as I can tell is that parenting is a lot like baking. There’s a lot of waiting and hoping that we’re using the right recipe along the way. And there’s no real set bake time, or guarantee that we won’t have really bad baking soda.
But baking is also fun. There’s the smell of the melting chocolate, the calm of kneading bread, the peeks into the oven to see if the top of the cake is brown, the sneaky spoonfuls of raw cookie dough. And there’s the promise, the hope, of a beautiful warm baked good at the end.
If this whole life thing were up to me, I’m not sure there would be a lot of ambiguity. I’m a little like the Top Chef contestants, preferring the immediacy of cooking to the chemistry of baking, not wanting to have to wait and see, preferring instead to get instant results.
But maybe it’s good it isn’t up to me. I imagine we’d miss the chocolate cake.