By Jamie Balke
“I think every woman should have a blowtorch.”
I didn’t really become interested in cooking until I graduated from college and lived for a full season in Grand Teton National Park. In our nation’s parks, pre-prepared foods are far more limited than in say, the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, or in Atlanta where I went to college.
Growing up, I loved when my parents hosted a dinner or made a big meal to celebrate a holiday, but I was more involved in food presentation than preparation. Setting the dining room table – which often involved floating candles – was usually the extent of my contribution.
Cooking frozen veggie stir-fry in college felt like a culinary accomplishment. Although I liked to eat, preparing food was usually a quick affair, a low-fuss means to an end. I began the process of learning how to appreciate food once I graduated and, over time, have learned how enjoyable creating a meal can be.
Initial attempts involved pre-made pasta sauce gussied up with sautéed veggies. Slowly but surely, I tried new recipes, sticking at first to my mother’s, which I knew would work. She even made me a recipe box featuring some of my favorites, the directions peppered with well-timed expletives, because that’s how Mom rolls.
Over time, I’ve branched out and a developed a skill-set beyond sautéed vegetables. I try to keep the following words from Julia Child in mind when working on a new dish: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a ‘What the hell?’ attitude.”
Through this process, Child has become one of my heroes. From what I can surmise, she not only knew how to cook, but how to live a meaningful, joyful life. One year, I dressed up as Julia for Halloween. To my disappointment, most people asked if I was Betty Crocker.
In addition to the act of cooking, I have learned to profoundly enjoy hosting. The first time I remember feeling like a successful hostess was at an end-of-season party during my second summer with the National Park Service. I was coerced into holding the event at my apartment, and loads of people from different divisions showed up.
As a somewhat shy person, I get anxious entertaining people I don’t know that well, but it went off without a hitch. Most people contributed a dish, and what began as a simple chili dinner became a feast. Everyone seemed to have fun. I felt like I was in my element, making sure the guests were well fed and comfortable.
There’s still a lot for me to learn about cooking and hosting, and I’m excited for the challenge, as well as the possibility of blowtorches.
Jamie Balke is getting her game face on for Thanksgiving.