And in life.
I’m sitting on my couch, cursing to myself, to the world, and to the unearthly beings who allegedly rule over domesticity. My cats are looking at me in that particular brand of silent judgment that every cat owner knows too well. I just nearly sliced off the tip of my pinky on a Benriner Japanese mandoline I acquired a month earlier on a trip to Atlanta’s Koreatown.
I am livid. This not-so-little accident has thrown a wrench into my carefully orchestrated plans for the day. I was supposed to finish preparing meatball mix and Swiss chard pie filling for a dinner party later in the week. I also needed to clean, trim, pack, and vacuum-seal a pile of excess produce before it goes bad. Furthermore, I needed to prepare ingredients for dinner that evening, clean up the kitchen, take out the trash and recycling, and fold laundry. Oh, and I needed to do all of the above within an hour so that I could make it to the gym before it closes for the day. Somehow, I was supposed to make lunch happen during that time, too.
Those were just the things I felt I needed to do. I also wanted to bake cookies, ferment some cream for crème fraîche, make a pot of tea, and organize the pantry.
Now I’m sitting on my couch applying pressure to my pinky with a wadded-up paper towel, willing the bleeding to stop so that I can get back to the kitchen. But the bleeding won’t subside, and my anger increases. I’m angry that I have to stop and that by stopping, something terrible will happen. My family will starve, the house will rot from lack of cleaning, and I will double in weight overnight, bringing immeasurable shame upon myself.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. I’m running out of fingers I can use to count the times I've seriously cut myself in the kitchen. I have noticed a pattern, though. For starters, I never seem to cut myself doing something heroic. I wish I could say I sliced my thumb or chopped off a fingernail deboning a duck or carving an elaborate centerpiece, or even slicing a beautiful rack of lamb. No. It’s always something very banal that leads to accidents in my kitchen. On this particular day, I was slicing green bell peppers to have on hand for stir-fries and stews.
I remember the first time I cut myself in the kitchen. My husband, John, and I had just returned from the grocery store. I had bought a bunch of pencil-thin asparagus and wanted to cut off the pithy ends before I stored them in the fridge. I didn’t even take a moment to clear the counters. In fact, grocery bags were stacked all around me. I could have waited to make sure there was adequate space by putting things away first. I could have even afforded myself the luxury of sitting down and having something to drink or maybe a little snack before I started working in the kitchen.
But I didn’t do any of that. I impatiently pushed some things out of the way to make just enough room for a cutting board. I gathered the asparagus spears, brought down the large chef’s knife, and felt the sting of sharp stainless steel piercing my flesh.
When I lived in Boston, I introduced a new threat into the kitchen. The mandoline proved to be a far worse adversary than any knife, despite its usefulness. Perhaps it was its usefulness that made it so dangerous. The speedy rhythm with which you can create paper-thin slices of fruits and vegetables is almost hypnotic, transporting your consciousness away from the task at hand. It just takes a second of this hypnosis for my kitchen prep to turn into a crime scene.
My family actually has a bad history with mandolines. My father received an expensive French model one year for Father’s Day. In his childlike excitement, he demanded that we bring him all sorts of vegetables to try his hand at making nearly transparent slices, crosshatched gaufrettes, and julienned matchsticks. His excitement finally got the best of him, and we ended up spending the rest of Father’s Day at an urgent care center.
My father and I are alike in many ways, unfortunately. But it's not just my excited carelessness that has led me to cut myself repeatedly over the years. As I sat on the couch trying to stop the bleeding on my pinky, breathing through my nose like an angry bull and deciding whether I should go to the emergency room, I finally calmed down enough to contemplate why this kept happening to me. I realized that the culprit was much more insidious than mere excitement. It liked to disguise itself in different costumes, like ambition and productivity, which made it seem socially acceptable or even commendable. But these weren't the true culprits behind my injuries.
Why should my huge laundry lists of things to do make me feel as though my world would come crashing down if I didn't accomplish everything?
This was something else entirely. This was anxiety, which I had started to become more intimately acquainted with earlier in the year. I knew about the condition, but I never thought about it affecting me until I started paying closer attention to my life: my nearly lifelong shortness of breath unrelated to asthma, unexplainable and invisible burning sensations on my skin, childhood meltdowns that would continue into adulthood, bursting into tears over the smallest occurrences. I have sought out professional help, and a lot of the symptoms I described above are rare now. However, dealing with anxiety is a process, and even though medications have helped me greatly, I am still working on overcoming it, especially in the kitchen.
I realized that every time I injured myself in the kitchen, I had worked myself up to a frenzy trying to accomplish an overwhelming amount of tasks within a certain period of time. I would feel as though there were someone or something looking over my shoulder, demanding that I cook and cook and cook and make it perfect. If everything weren’t perfect, there would be dire consequences. I'd become so flustered by this imagined pressure that I would lose the ability to concentrate on what I was doing, making failure inevitable. In the worst instances, I would slice a finger.
That afternoon, I realized something needed to change. Cutting myself on that mandoline ended up being one of the best things to happen to me, as it forced me to stop and reexamine my attitude towards everything. When my finger finally stopped bleeding, I was able to look at the present situation and discern what was real and what was imagined, as well as what I really needed to accomplish that day versus what my anxiety told me I needed to accomplish. I also asked my husband for help. I took a deep breath, bandaged my finger, slipped on a finger cot, and got back into the kitchen to finish the preparations for the dinner party. John was prepping and bagging the excess produce. I decided I’d skip the gym that evening, and that we'd order pizza for dinner that night.
I was amazed at how great I felt after I cut back all the excess. The kitchen felt enjoyable and relaxing again now that I didn’t feel as though I had a dozen different things to do within a tiny window of time. And having my husband help me not only took some of the pressure off, but it also allowed us to spend time together doing something we both enjoyed.
Slicing my pinky wasn’t like waving a magic wand on my kitchen anxiety, though. Changing a habit takes daily practice. I understand that there are times when I will get flustered and overwhelmed in the kitchen, and the big, bad boss man in my head will return, wanting me to spiral into a bloody meltdown. I also understand that there are times when I will be so excited to cook that my head will be in the clouds, and I can easily harm myself. However, there are things I can do to center myself.
Now I try to be aware of how I'm feeling in the kitchen at all times. If I feel stressed or overexcited, I try to pause, take a breath, and examine what I'm doing to make me feel that way. I try to rush less and take my time. As clichéd as it may sound, I try to be present in the moment and not worry so much about what may or may not happen. This approach not only helps me avoid painful accidents, but it also improves the quality of the foods I prepare. You can say that patience is the secret ingredient in a lot of my best cooking.
I recently received a gift from John, which he was very excited for me to unwrap. As I tore off the wrapping paper, I saw a pair of safety gloves staring back at me. An older version of myself might have been offended at the message such a gift could send. However, I realized just two days after I thought I might be losing the tip of my pinky that these gloves were specifically engineered for people like me. I store the gloves with my mandoline and wear them every time I use this kitchen tool. As a result, what was once a dangerous culinary adversary is now a very helpful ally in the kitchen.
Have you ever cut yourself on a mandoline? Share your tales in the comments below.