Over the course of 2004, two things happened: I finally established positive cash flow after having been laid off during the dot-com bust, and I got dumped. The relationship was a bad one. But even though the breakup was long overdue, it still left me feeling gloomy – just in time for my December birthday (which I spent crying at my desk at work) and Christmas.
My dad sent me some money for the holidays. It was enough to make my eyes widen for a second. I could have done a number of responsible-grown-up things: paid down principal on my student loan, perhaps, or replenished my still-damaged savings account.
But I didn’t.
I acted rashly. I logged onto the Internet. I searched. I added to cart. I clicked “buy.”
I bought myself cooking lessons.
The five classes in regional French cooking were held Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. at a culinary school two miles from my house. They were taught by senior-level students of the degree program, impressive in their chefly whites, our syllabus in the form of recipe bundles to be prepared and consumed during each session. I’d trundle up on a cold January morning for the lessons where our little group, perhaps 12 of us, would listen sleepily to descriptions of foodstuffs local to the region du jour. We would then pair off with another student with our assigned recipes, ready to inflict our amateur-hour shenanigans upon one of the most celebrated culinary traditions in the world.
Each week the same faces would gather over our ranges and cutting boards, embarrass ourselves in front of the almost-professional chefs and cook something that approximated French cuisine.
When it was time to tuck in, the instructor would hustle off to the cellar in search of opened bottles of wine that had been used in the previous week’s wine tasting courses, so the “final exams” became festive indeed.
The course brought us Provence’s ratatouille and soupe au pistou, a vegetable soup with basil and parsley.
Normandy delivered pork roast basted in hard cider and served with apple rings sauteed in butter.
In Perigord, we stuffed our faces with clafoutis, a sort of custard tart with cherries and brandied plum ice cream. There were gougeres – cream puff dough with cheese; frise and lardons salad – curly endive with chunks of bacon; and boule de neige – a dome of chocolate cake covered in whipped cream.
Then came that greatest of days: Alsace-Lorraine. Every dish except the dessert (a rich plum tart) had pork in it – including the salad, which consisted of grated Gruyere cheese and bacon with some diced onion playing the role of “vegetable.” The entire class series was worth it for the discovery of choucroute garnie or “garnished sauerkraut”: a revelation of sauerkraut braised in white wine for an hour, piled onto a platter, and garnished with about six pounds of pork products – chops, belly, sausages – arranged artfully around it. I think it was two days before I stopped smelling like smoked meat.
None of this made me a chef, although it at least elevated me above the mom from “Better Off Dead.”
But it did provide one valuable thing that didn’t involve pork: It got me out of my head. It gave me a chance to talk to people who weren’t co-workers or friends humoring my gloom and self-pity. It gave me an excuse to take it easy on a Friday night, and get out of the house on a Saturday morning. It provided disinterested-third-party confirmation, via a story about a disregarded birthday cake, that my ex really was kind of a mean guy after all. It made me feel like myself again.
Life is long, and the world can be cold and sometimes very cruel, so if there’s any lesson to be learned, it’s that once in a while, remember to be nice to yourself. In the months and years following my adventures in French cuisine, I took some knocks, a couple of which nearly laid me out for good. I didn’t continue with cooking lessons — my financial whimsy has boundaries, after all. (Besides, “Top Chef” and its occasional received-wisdom cookery tidbits came on the air not long after.)
But I’ll always be glad I took the course.
I’m grateful that I was impulsive and “irresponsible.” I’m glad I met those people, looked dumb in public, and learned to put either wine or pork (or both) in everything. And I’m glad I ate and drank and laughed with friendly souls.
Kate Hagerty, a graduate of Boston College, lives near Boston and works in the health-care technology industry.