When we first moved into our home several years ago, our neighbor welcomed us into the neighborhood with an aromatic, perfectly-textured loaf of homemade bread, still warm from the oven; a few days later she sent over a plate of cinnamon rolls. Throughout the years we have known her she has continued sending mouth-watering goodies, all beautiful and tasty. Jeanne is one of those people who can work magic in the kitchen, and make it look easy. But for me, and perhaps many others, the culinary arts come with much more difficulty. (In my own case, that is putting it gently.)
For years I struggled miserably with fancy recipes because I had the notion that “gourmet cook” and “good LDS-Christian sister” were synonymous terms. I had seen the mouth-watering delicacies some of my neighbors seemed to produce so effortlessly; and if they could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I asked for their recipes, perused exotic cook books, consulted specialty magazines. But, in my kitchen, the magazine adjectives rarely came to pass. The harder I tried, the more nervous and upset I became and the worse things turned out. Besides that, I was turning into a pessimist who expected the worst. I didn’t let myself get a bit excited if something happened to look delicious, because past experience told me that if it looked halfway decent, it wouldn’t taste that way. And if it tasted quite good, it would look like a disaster. Rarely did the twain meet.
I began labeling myself as a kitchen klutz. I didn’t give myself credit for the fact that I did seem able to handle simple, nutritious meals and snacks for my family and that my children were growing properly and seemed healthy. That didn’t seem to be enough. I wanted to be in the gourmet league.
On one particularly frustrating day, I plopped down on a kitchen chair and sobbed, “Why can everyone cook beautifully except me? What’s wrong with me?” As I said the words, they sounded familiar. Then I realized that my use of the word “everyone” was an exaggeration I had often used as a teenager. I also remembered how my mother had handled it. “Oh, Mom,” I had said when I hadn’t been invited to a dance. “Everyone is going! Everyone!”
“Be more specific,” my mother had said. “Who is everyone? Is Shiela going?”
“Well, no, I don’t think so.”
“Is Beth going?”
“No, I guess she isn’t.”
My mother listed all the girls with whom I was acquainted and when it came right down to who was actually going to the dance, there really weren’t as many as I had suspected. “Well, then,” my mother would say, “I guess ‘everyone’ isn’t going then.”
I thought about my belief that “everyone” in my neighborhood was a gourmet cook. When I counted the number of neighbors who were fancy cooks, there were just a few. One neighbor had actually complained to me about her cooking. So everyone didn’t cook beautifully. They all had different talents. I had only noticed the good cooks, perhaps because I felt so lacking in that area.
I remembered talking with one of my friends who is a good cook and praising her art. “Yes, I like to cook,” she had said. “And it comes easily for me because I enjoy it. I’m just glad I can do something. I’ve never found it easy to put things on paper like you do. My own journal puts me to sleep. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how different people are? It makes life so interesting. Thank goodness we’re not all the same.”
Everyone has something to offer, I decided. Maybe, even though cooking was difficult for me, that didn’t mean I couldn’t share gifts of love. It doesn’t have to be good cooking one shares.
For the next few months, I decided to investigate and begin looking for alternatives. I discovered that many women shared other talents and gifts with friends and neighbors. I just hadn’t been paying attention. Some of the different ways of “ doing for others” could be used in conjunction with culinary gifts, or as an alternative. Here are a few of the “ gifts of love” ideas I found:
1. Natural, non-cooked food products. Neighbors and friends are often just as delighted with fresh fruits, nuts, raisins, or produce out of the garden as with baked goodies. People in general seem to be nutrition-oriented, and they appreciate receiving the “good-for-you” foods.
A clever container can add sparkle to such items. One Christmas a friend gave our family a small nutcracker bottle filled with almonds. We used that little nutcracker with delight the entire year, and the next Christmas I gave a similar nutcracker bottle filled with nuts to our next door neighbors.
2. Gifts of nature. I once received a beautiful sea shell with a message inside. I still treasure that shell. A small glass bottle of sea shells is fun for decorating. Polished rocks or just a nice smooth rock can be used for a paper weight and can even be painted with a message. Fresh flowers are almost always welcome in homes. And who can resist houseplants?
3. Seasonal gifts. We can take advantage of holidays by giving gifts appropriate to the season. Decorations can be made or purchased. Over the years I have known her, a friend has given us clever decorations that we use year after year. A clever witch adorns our mantle each Halloween; an Easter egg decoration is brought out each Easter; and hand-fashioned ornaments add beauty to our Christmas tree. And creativity is enjoyable for the giver as well as the receiver.
4. Unusual or useful gifts. A package of colorful paper clips, cheery hot pads, or pin cushions are just a few of the treasured items that I’ve received from others, as well as storage items such as candles or an oil lamp (even batteries or matches), with a personal note attached.
5. “Especially-for-you-”gifts. My neighbor sent over a treasured photograph of our children playing together. When I told another friend that I was interested in reading a certain book, she immediately bought me my own paperback copy. One friend told me of a neighbor who welcomed her into the neighborhood with her own version of “welcome wagon”—a basket containing a list of good places to shop or buy various products, a map of the area, and a variety of small household items that are always difficult to find after a move.
6. Service. Helping others is also saying “I love you.” When I was a child, our mutual neighbor sewed Easter dresses for my three cousins the year my aunt was ill. “I’ll never forget her for that,” says my cousin Janie. “We were terribly awed that someone would do such a service for us.”
Service may include a major project, or just some kind words. An inspirational thought, a compliment, a poem, or words of appreciation often help others cope with difficult situations. I once wrote a poem for a troubled sister whom I served as a visiting teacher, but I was afraid to give it to her, thinking that she wouldn’t appreciate my “from-the-heart” words. After driving past her mailbox several times I finally left it, still worrying. I was relieved a few days later when she told me how touched she had been. “No one has ever written a poem just for me,” she said.
7. Friendship. To my mind, friends—those who try to make others feel good about themselves—are truly great Christians. A phone call, a visit, a listening ear, a gift of loyalty often mean much more than physical gifts. My friend Jeanne, the kitchen artist, has given me much more than her homemade bread and sweet rolls through the years. Most appreciated is the fact that I can tell her anything with the comforting knowledge that she will not repeat any of it and that she will look only at the good in what I say. That’s friendship.
But even with all the good alternatives to fancy cooking, I realize that we low-talent cooks cannot and should not completely give up baking and cooking for others! When the Relief Society calls and asks me to help prepare a meal for a sister in need, I don’t have the option of substituting a poem. So I have come up with a solution: I’ve started collecting “almost foolproof” recipes. Simplicity has become my motto in the kitchen.
And just because one has a small amount of talent does not mean that it should be buried. There’s a parable about that. Progress means we must keep trying. Now that I am relaxing a little and not expecting amazing culinary feats of myself, I am actually getting better. I’m sure my confidence will keep growing as my successes mount. I am, for example, very proud of the raspberry jam I made this year. It was an easy non-cook variety, but it tasted and looked good. That’s a miracle in my kitchen.
Someday, perhaps in a few years, perhaps in the next world, my cooking talent will have developed to the point where I can call myself a gourmet cook. But I’ve quit trying to rush it. I know now that in the meantime there are many ways to say “I love you.”