Doing It Yourself
Yesterday Luke and I had what would have been a great first date. (As it was, it was a great 245th date, or whatever. It’s too bad how you lose count of dates. You should keep a tally of things like that so that you have an interesting statistic to share at a dinner party.*)
First, we went to see the movie “Seasons”** at the Music Box Theater. Then we went to the empanada shop (I was weeping openly because that is the kind of movie “Seasons” is), and they didn’t have any vegetarian empanadas left. But Luke asked if maybe they had some in the back, and the woman went back there and found some and fried them up just for me. We bought cat food at the grocery (I guess that’s not such a sexy first date thing — or is it?), and we stopped by the flower shop on the way home to get a succulent, and then we spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen making things.
We made caramel. Here’s the recipe I use for caramel. (And a general shout out for The Kitchn in general; it’s the only food website on the internet that’s better than a cook book because the people who make it always take photos EXHAUSTIVELY and at every single step of the process, so you always know if the stuff you’re making is the right color. The Kitchn’s recipe for sourdough bread is also my go-to. I have tried eight. The Kitchn’s is the best.) Caramel is fun to make because it feels like the kind of thing that you shouldn’t be able to make. It requires a candy thermometer, but otherwise it’s one of the simplest foods to get right. (How can you really go wrong with butter and sugar and heavy cream?)
We made sushi. I bought a bamboo mat at the Vietnamese grocery store uptown (it’s in the same strip mall as the good laundromat), and sheets of nori for about a dollar. I’d been meaning to make sushi for months, but I kept forgetting and letting my cucumbers go bad. The trick with sushi is the rice, and the rice is actually really easy.***
While the caramel was bubbling, Luke said something very flattering like, “Thanks for being a person who is willing to do recipes. Recipes kind of scare me."
And I replied — all arrogant and cool, the way one should reply on a first date — “yeah, a few years ago I realized that pretty much anything there is can be made at home. And I’ve been looking up recipes for things that seem like they should be hard ever since.****"
In bed that night, I lay awake for a while wondering what the impetus for doing things myself had truly been. Because actually, in college I didn’t really think about doing anything myself; I bought boxed cake mixes and hired people to assemble my bookshelves. If you are a person who does things herself, you know what I mean: There was maybe a day when you realized that you didn’t have to spend so much money to get the thing you wanted. You just needed some time and patience.
I dialed back to the first time I made caramel (three years ago, Groundhog Day), but that wasn’t it. I thought about when I started making books with book board and glue, but that wasn’t it, either. I thought about buying craft books. I thought about learning how to make salad dressing.
But in fact the day I became a person who hoped to do things herself happened the first year I lived in New Orleans. I’d had car trouble since I moved there*****, so I’d purchased a brown cruiser bicycle from Craigslist. You have to realize that I was not a bike-riding person. I was terrified of bikes. I bought this bicycle because I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed, and because I had a lot of cool and hip friends who rode bicycles and I thought I’d just fake it until I made it.******
In January, my bike got a flat tire. I lived in a neighborhood with no nearby bike shop, so I felt like I was basically screwed; I didn’t see how I would ever get my bike working again. I considered just buying a new bike off Craigslist that didn’t have a flat tire yet. Luckily, I mentioned my flat tire conundrum at dinner with my (radical, brilliant) female friends, and they recognized this to be a baby-bathwater sort of a situation. “Oh my god, DON’T buy a new bike,” Hannah said. “I’ll come over and we’ll fix it together."
“YOU CAN DO THAT?!” I know you think I’m exaggerating, but to me this was the real world equivalent of Hannah revealing that she could shoot lasers out of her hands.
Hannah came over on a sunny Saturday armed with a tube (it came in a little cardboard box and was way smaller than I thought it would be), a bike pump, a little blue tool that looked like a can opener, and a book called “The Chainbreaker Bike Book.” It wasn’t like it was necessarily easy to fix the flat tire, but it also wasn’t that hard. Hannah made me do it all myself. I felt so proud to have the bike grease on my elbows; to be sitting next to a dissected bicycle with a trust that by the end of the day, somehow, all these parts would be a whole vehicle again.
That kind of thing changes you. You see that everything is made up of simple parts; it’s a lesson that isn't necessarily easily understood in a modern world where you can literally click a button and have Taco Bell delivered to your house. A year after we fixed the bike tire, I met a man who made his own screws. We already have so much of what we need.
For all Luke’s hemming and hawing about being afraid of recipes, he actually teaches me a ton of lessons about doing things yourself. Our pipes burst last year (they burst because plumbing is outside the realm of things I think I can do myself, and so I had poured way too much Draino into our sink when Luke wasn’t home because I was annoyed with a clog and wanted a quick fix), and he went out, bought a pipe elbow (not necessarily what they’re called, but certainly what they look like), and replaced the part in pipe that had the hole. Luke grew up helping his dad build houses, which may be one of the best things a young person can grow up doing.
Doing things yourself makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel like you can live a little more gently if you slow down and notice what it takes for something to be fixed, or cooked, or made.*******
The rest of our date involved eating the sushi while playing Scrabble (I got “CAPSIZE” on a triple word score, so, that’s basically my Scrabble Magnum Opus); we watched “A Muppet Christmas Carol” while tying the caramels up in wax paper; we did the dishes. Once we realized how first-datey this evening was feeling, we decided to try to learn new things about each other, which it turns out is always possible. I learned, for example, that Luke does not like Third Eye Blind! I KNOW!!! But he doesn’t.
* Here’s how I picture this going.
Deb: Oh my, aren’t these exciting canapés?
Sophie: Yes, they’re marvelous.
Deb: What’s new with you?
Sophie: Well, yesterday Luke and I went on our 245th date!
Deb: Hahahaha. Or whatever, right? You don’t truly know how many dates you’ve been on with Luke.
Sophie: Oh no, I’ve kept a tally! This was our 245th date. We’ve also said “I love you” 1,293 times, and we’ve given each other presents 112 times.
Sophie: But the canapés, am I right?!
** “Seasons” is a French documentary about how humans are destroying the earth. It is very emotional. It also has some of the best footage of wolves running around in packs and chasing boars that probably exists in the universe. I’ll recommend it, but not if you’re easily prone to having mild panic attacks when you think about how unbelievably shitty your species has been. This is a very pro-wolves movie.
*** Three cups of short-grain rice, rinsed and cooked. In a separate saucepan heat up 1/3 a cup of rice vinegar and dissolve three tablespoons of sugar. Fold the vinegar mixture into the warm rice, preferably in a wooden bowl. The end!
**** Sriracha sauce, cheese, mayonnaise, tofu, sprouts, pizza dough, truffles, soap, tea, candles, jam, and so on and so forth.
***** My car exploded in a parking lot.
****** This kind of worked. The first week I had the bike I crashed it into the streetcar. The second week I had the bike I crashed it into the curb on the neutral ground. The third week I had a bike I bought a helmet.
******* This statement comes from a place of privilege, and I recognize that. We don’t live in a world where everyone has the means to sit and make their own screws. And still, I think there’s something small to be learned from this idea anyway. I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that we could all stand to spend a little more time in the process of creating the things we consume.