Looking back, I realize that I’ve never burned down a kitchen. I’ve never let a strawberry layer cake slip off a plate and splatter pink sugar flowers on my shoes. I’ve never poisoned my parents by mistaking lighter fluid for apple juice or dropped a 20-pound Christmas turkey on my grandma’s big toe. My cooking faux pas have all been fairly run-of-the-mill. I’ve boiled pasta well past al dente. I’ve charred omelets. Once, when I was 6, I set too many minutes on a microwave timer and made a hot dog explode.
I believe myself to be a terrible cook because my twin sister, Eliza, is a fucking cooking prodigy. She knows how to do a special thing to cut basil — promenade? tapenade? (Just texted her — it’s “chiffonade.”) She would know how to “chiffonade,” because she owns, like, 1,000 knives. And a juicer. And a baster. And a zester. And three graters. Last year, she invented a salad. I didn’t even know you could do that. Here’s how she makes it: she takes oranges, avocados, green apples, raw kale, and pine nuts, and chops them up in a Cuisinart and serves them with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s incredible.
When we were growing up, we’d each ask our mother, “What are we eating tonight?” But Eliza’s question was motivated by culinary curiosity, and mine by foraging instincts. She would explore the cookbook cabinet and suggest that we try corn and pumpkin chowder or vichyssoise. I had a favorite cookbook, but I read it for the introductory notes and the marginalia, not the recipes. It was called One Bite Won’t Kill You, and it featured funny stories from frazzled parents with sentences like, “My daughter Boco thinks that butter is food.”
I read a lot in those days, and not just cookbooks. My shelves were stocked with novels about scrappy female knights. I’d climb trees and pretend that I was them (the knights, not the trees, though the latter wouldn’t have been out of the question). Eliza thought that reading was lonely. She chatted easily with our aunts about perfume and other girly stuff, while I busied myself eating peanuts from the basket on the counter. Deep down, I knew that we were doing something we would later regret: we were divvying up the world into brains and social skills, school and art, mine and yours. I now feel that I was the lucky one, but back then I felt that I had gotten the scrubby, ugly end of the deal.
In middle school, Eliza started cooking for herself. I remember her first stab at lemon curd bars, our mother’s specialty. They had golden brown tops and perfectly tart centers. They lounged on the cooling rack like bathing beauties, evenly tanned. I was certain that I could never replicate them.
Baking fell squarely within Eliza’s assigned territory: girly and finicky. We all subscribed to the comforting family myth that Eliza was meticulous while I was absentminded. Like most myths, this one was based on fact. Every Christmas, we decorated our front hall with two versions of the same elementary-school craft projects, but Eliza’s nutcracker had two hands pasted neatly under his blue paper sleeves, and mine had one hand stuck on backwards and pasted on top of the sleeve, exposing a stumpy wrist-stalk. Unsurprisingly, baking was not my thing. I was not patient enough to sift flour. I confused baking powder with baking soda and took chocolate chip cookies out of the oven while they were still gooey.
I didn’t try to improve. “Whip these egg whites with me,” Eliza would say. “I can’t,” I’d say. So now I still can’t. We’ve torn down some of the territorial walls (it turned out that Eliza loved Anna Karenina, and I wanted to be friends with girls), but we’ve left some of them standing. It’s a safe way to define who we are.
Last summer, alone in my Washington, D.C. apartment, I faced the terrifying task of defrosting a chicken. (I know that there is a very specific way to defrost meat. I believe the process involves water. The microwave has a Defrost setting, but I think it’s only for frozen vegetables, an icy clump of peas or beans or corn kernels. You can’t defrost chicken in the microwave because, naturally, however, insomuch as, something to do with microbes.)
The easiest thing to do would have been to call Eliza and ask how to do it. Instead, I impetuously filled a bowl with hot water and left the whole package of chicken in it for several hours. I went on a rainy run and took a shower in the humid basement apartment. When I returned to the chicken, it was whitish on the outside, and I could still feel ice crystals in the center when I poked it with a squeamish finger. The surface was slimy, like the underside of your tongue.
Oh no. What if I got salmonella, or E. coli, or whatever? Though it was now too late, I Googled “how to defrost chicken.” The Huffington Post recommended, first, using the refrigerator. I had not done this. The next picture was of a running tap, and I felt a momentary lift. It turned out, however, that the proper thing was to run cold water over the meat while keeping it in a sealed bag. Oops.
I looked sideways at the chicken to see if I could detect bacteria. I smelled it. It smelled OK. But I believe that in cooking there are mysterious rules I do not know and governing intuitions I do not possess. Eliza could take one look at that inert chicken breast and know not only its bacterial content, but also its weight and girth and whether it should be boiled or fried. She probably defrosts chicken in her sleep, just because she can. She probably does it for fun, while she’s watching TV, or putting on eyeliner. I bet she can do it with no hands.
I dumped the meat into a trash bag. It sat on the curb outside, a monument to my defeat, until the garbage men came and took it away. A few days later, fretting that I had wasted perfectly good protein, I gave in and asked Eliza what she would have done. “Thrown it away, I think,” she said. “Man, I always forget how to defrost things.”
Our voices have the same rhythm, and those could have been my words. Come to think of it, that time the hot dog exploded, we set the timer together.