Learning from a Recipe’s Failure

“Go sharpen my pencil, b*tch!” 

What? I wasn’t expecting that from an 11-year-old. It was my first day as a teaching assistant in East Harlem. My detailed lesson plans for the 22 sixth graders didn’t prepare me for Alvin’s behavior. 

“Don’t ever speak to me like that!” I snapped back, and sent him to the dean’s office. I was shocked but not shaken. This wasn’t the first time an obstacle confronted my careful planning.   

I vividly remember the evening of August 19, 2016: the timer beeps spitefully. Grabbing a spoon from the utensil drawer, I lean over the stove, scooping gnocchi from the bubbling water. My sister Carol twists the faucet and I hold the spoon under the cold stream. We stare at the culmination of our last hour in the kitchen. The homemade gnocchi bears an uncanny resemblance to pebbles in our driveway. According to the recipe, making gnocchi from scratch is “simple” — yet this isn’t the grand dinner I envisioned.

At age 15, I wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful than the last minute “Happy Anniversary” cards we typically made. I summoned Carol into my room and closed the door. “Let’s surprise them with a multi-course dinner!”

Sit-down meals have always been a cherished central part of our family life. Growing up in Germany, Dad ate breakfast every morning with his family, and my parents continued this tradition in our home. We begin the day with Mom’s cherry almond-butter smoothies or toast slathered with my German Opa’s homemade raspberry jam while discussing everything from weekend plans to my teaching experiences, erupting Hawaiian volcanoes or cryptocurrencies. On Sundays we prepare new dinner recipes together, but Mom cooks most other meals. For their anniversary, we thought it would be special for our parents to enjoy a homemade dinner without doing any work.

Excited about the challenge ahead, I immediately researched countless recipes and reviews. I am a “planimal” with color-coded study guides and my customized day planner. Before long, I had outlined every detail: menu selection and design, photomontage and soundtrack, decorations and shopping lists. Biking home from Stop & Shop, Carol and I wobbled across Nantucket cobblestones, handlebars laden with groceries.

Carol rode in front so I could alert her if she dropped anything. Helping Carol comes with being the older sister and inspires my passion for sharing knowledge. Long before tutoring students in the Bronx, I quizzed Carol  in Latin and Spanish and taught her the song that had helped me learn the 50 states and capitals. We still managed to belt it out during a recent hike in Denali when my parents asked us to make noise to keep away the bears. 

Tonight our parents sit outside in the dark and the mosquitoes are the only ones having a feast. The screen door slams as Mom enters. “Can I help?” she asks. We explain our mishap, and she laughs, revealing that even experienced chefs prefer to purchase some ingredients that are tricky to make, including (spoiler alert!) gnocchi.

That night, I realize that being prepared and following a recipe doesn’t always ensure a palatable outcome. This insight also serves me well when teaching. 

Unlike my gnocchi recipe, which couldn’t be salvaged after the fact, I was able to tweak my approach to teaching Alvin during my month in the classroom. I discovered that the key ingredients for curbing his disruptive behavior were establishing my authority and engaging him. Working with Alvin individually, I discovered his strong math skills and joy in presenting his answers to the class. Though still not quite a model student, his overall conduct improved dramatically. 

As for cooking, I remain undeterred by the gnocchi incident and still plan to make macarons and croissants from scratch — some day.  (626)

The author of this essay preferred to remain anonymous. She is a freshman at Pomona.