Grace for the Frozen Food Chef

I Praise God that I Am only a Few Minutes and Microwave Beeps away from Alfredo Pasta with Chicken and Broccoli

Guest Contributor / 10.26.20

This post comes to us from Elizabeth Girvan:

I turned 26 this week, and I do not know how to chop an onion.

At least, not in a way that would provoke anyone’s admiration. I’ve watched how-to videos. I’ve received lessons from aunts and siblings and a boyfriend (all with varying techniques). Nothing sticks. Even when I leave these teaching moments — freshly confident in my ability to dice for myself — I can never replicate the effortless and consistent quality of anyone else’s onion-slicing on my own.

My incompetence with the onion is like my affinity for cooking more generally. I seem to lack a je ne sais quois in almost every culinary category. Some cooks accuse me of flippancy when I guestimate my vanilla extract or cayenne. Others knock my strict adherence to a recipe, urging me to instead be spontaneous and intuitive with my process. Have a little fun with it! Sigh.

Our relationship to the kitchen is emotional. The thick fragrance of baking apples can carry us back to a childhood afternoon with a grandparent. A champagne cork’s enthusiastic burst tells us there’s been a promotion, or a new house, or somebody’s having a baby. Along with moments of great cheer, the kitchen can also bring us down. Whether it’s our glaring ineptitude laid right out there on the center island, or our need to be in control, or our quickness to cruelty to anyone nearby, cooking just draws it out of us. Beyond the harangue in our own minds, it also signals to others just how exceptional we are. Or are not. What are we able to pull together to feed ourselves on a weeknight, and can we make it look effortless? If not effortless, can we make our striving appear chic or deliberate?

I’m not a parent, but I’ve spent more hours babysitting than Michael Phelps has logged in the lap lane. Countless times, I’ve noted the guilt in a young father’s eyes as he pulls on his dress shoes, gesturing with his thumb to a frozen DiGiorno pizza on the granite countertop. Embarrassed, he’ll say, “We don’t normally serve the girls this kind of thing, we’re just in a rush to get out the door tonight. They usually eat salmon or green beans. It’s been a long week.”

Inevitably, the kids are delighted with whatever meal has been selected for its ease. Chicken nuggets with a dollop of ketchup on the side. White cheddar, bunny-shaped mac and cheese, side of green peas. And most often, most beloved: frozen pizzas.

Both parents cooked throughout my childhood and made dishes that I’ve added to my own recipe tin. But it’s the grace of the unremarkable microwaveable plate that I cherish. I’m lucky to have a mother who always kept Lean Cuisines in the freezer. Granted, she’s a human being with her own kitchen anxieties, but it’s my mom that taught me the mercy of the frozen meal. Pulling a premade entrée out of the freezer did not suggest defeat or mediocrity. It meant that our days were full of things that made us human — and made us hungry.

Now that I arrange my own days, and plan my own meals, I have more gratitude for these mercies than ever. When the exhaustion of living settles in, and suddenly it’s getting late on a Wednesday evening, I praise God that I am only a few minutes and microwave beeps away from Alfredo pasta with chicken and broccoli.

In more severe moments of grief or shock in my life, it does not matter to me that I can’t slice an onion to my liking. For all of my striving to be a more capable chef (and a more capable everything, actually), it is remarkable how that attempt fades away when I merely need some comfort.

I’d like to be known for the things I’ve pulled together on rare occasion. At that, I’d like to be the kind of person who cooks with joy, who sees the kitchen as a place to be and not a chore that must be done. When you’re seen as a fantastic chef, you’re seen as somebody who has it all together. Anne Lamott writes, “If you are what you do … and you do poorly, what then? It’s over; you’re wiped out. All those prophecies you heard in the dark have come true, and people can see the real you, see what a schmendrick you are, what a fraud.” The necessity of eating regularly can be a constant reminder of failure. With a recommendation of three meals per day, our culinary floundering is a judgement difficult to hide.

Gratefully, we are not known to God by what we have blanched or baked. We might be more inclined to take note of the Holy Spirit’s nearness at a dinner party, with wide eyes drinking in an elaborate, impressive spread. But I have known the nearness of the Lord in a plastic oval dish, perpetually burning my tongue on a not-quite-cooled-enough bite of something undistinguished.

Sometimes my contentment with a warm meal without much effort is a reminder of my Comforter. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And if we truly “are what we eat,” then maybe I’m a Lean Cuisine. Or, perhaps, a poorly diced onion.