You can spend years perfecting your skills in the kitchen and amassing an arsenal of supplies, but what good are they if you lose the most important tool of all?
It was last December and, although the holiday season's inevitable craziness was getting to me, I was the good kind of exhausted. I was the baker for a small, beloved cafe and my calendar for the next year was already filled with cooking classes and workshops I was going to teach, exciting collaborations with local artists, and even a trip to my homeland of Georgia.
But then my life violently veered onto a different path when, a week before Christmas, I nearly lost my whole hand in a rollover car accident.
In the end, my surgeons were able to save my hand, but at the price of two fingers and essentially all hand function. In addition to coping with a new normal, it's also been a year of countless surgeries and rehab appointments — neither I nor my doctors and therapists have given up on getting my hand to work like it did before. Even though I haven't set foot in a professional kitchen since the accident, I haven't allowed my loss to hold me back from cooking and baking.
My drive to create in the kitchen propels me to work through my frustrations, tears, and moments of doubt. In turn, each foray into the kitchen has been both a small triumph, as well as a lesson in patience, resourcefulness, and self-discovery. Here, I share with you 10 kitchen skills I've had to relearn since losing my left hand, and the life lessons I've acquired along the way.
1. Prepping fruits and vegetables: Be patient.
In the first few months when my hand was perpetually in a large cast or big splint, I turned to an ingenious Swedish cutting board to assist in prepping foods. When finally freed of the bulk, I remember trying to chop a red onion for the first time, my left hand cautiously attempting to hold the vegetable in place. What once took me 30 seconds at most now involved minutes of careful concentration and painfully slow cutting. After half an onion, I walked away in angry tears.
I've since learned to be more patient with myself — cooking should be a source of joy, not stress or defeat. I remind myself that no one is timing my knife skills and my dish won't taste bad if my onion is unevenly chopped. With time and practice I've been able to adapt, relying more on my palm to anchor down objects. I'm still nowhere as efficient and precise as I once was, but I'm improving nonetheless, and that's fulfilling in and of itself.
2. Cutting my food: Don't be afraid to ask for help.
When you're not 3 years old, it's hard to stomach having someone else cut up your food for you. My fork serves a dual purpose these days, and it works well enough most of the time, but it's those tougher cuts of meat — steaks, chops, etc. — that are a nuisance.
At first, especially if out in public, I'd be embarrassed to ask whoever I was dining with to cut my food for me. Eventually, I realized it was a win-win situation. My friends and family felt good about assisting me, and I was left full and satisfied with my meal. At home, it's a different story. I'll pick up the piece of meat in its entirety and take one giant, satisfying bite out of it.
3. Moving heavy objects: Know my own strength.
It's not all frustrating — I'm also often surprised by a task I'm still able to do. However, the kitchen can be a dangerous place if you're not careful, so I test everything new out carefully. I've been focusing on my right arm at the gym to ensure I can still pick up and move around heavy skillets, baking pans, and sheet pans of food. A pot of boiling water or soup, though, no matter how strong my right arm is, still requires both hands.
To be extra safe, I'll even place trivets at different points on the counter, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to make sure I can put down the vessel if it gets to be too heavy. It's all about striking a balance between being confident and having a safety net, too.
4. Opening cans: Think outside the box.
A few months ago, I was going to a dinner party and said I would bring a three-bean salad. Some parsley, red onion, a few cans of beans — easy enough. That is, until I actually went to open the cans of beans and realized that I couldn't actually use a can opener with only my right hand. It also didn't help that my two-dollar can opener from college barely worked even when I had two hands. Determined, I spent the next 30 minutes alternating between puncturing individual holes into the lids and twisting the handle with my left elbow. At the time, I was frustrated and angry and vowed never to cook with beans again.
Looking back, I'm proud that I didn't back down from the obstacle and instead faced it in a creative way (I do wish I had a video of myself stabbing those cans as a reminder of how far I've come). To keep it from happening again, however, I've invested in one of these.
5. Opening jars: Stop complaining and just do something about it.
A jar is another headache for us one-handed folk. My go-to method for a while was squeezing the jar between my thighs and opening the lid that way. Tucking the jar into the crook of my elbow also worked. Both methods, however, kept resulting in pickle juice or some other unsavory liquid all over myself. I complained over and over again about jars and why they had to be so difficult to open until my mom couldn't take it anymore ("Then stop complaining and do something about it," she said). Sometimes it takes another's voice of reason to give you the impetus you need.
I did some research and bought this jar opener: an easy solution to a not-so-bad problem. I haven't complained (at least about jars) since.
6. Baking a cake: Invest in the right tools.
The first thing I made once out of the hospital and was strong enough was a blueberry, hazelnut, and ricotta cake. What made it so easy, to my surprise, was my stand mixer: I threw ingredients into the bowl, and the appliance did the rest. Never again will I underestimate the right kitchen appliance! Sifters with the squeeze handle allow me to effortlessly sift dry ingredients with one hand and my tapered rolling pin only requires applied pressure to roll out pie dough. Plastic dough scrapers have been revolutionary in transferring batter from a bowl to the baking dish.
I'm not suggesting to buy every "As Seen on TV" kitchen gadget, but investing in the right tools for your specific needs can make all the difference.
7. Separating eggs: Arrive thoroughly prepared (and read the recipe).
Every year I make one of my close friends a tiramisu for her birthday, and this year was not going to be any different. I knew how to crack an egg with one hand, so the recipe's 10 eggs didn't deter me.
The issue lied in the fact that I overlooked the cardinal rule of recipe-following: Read and think through the entire recipe before you start. I got to the step of beating in the eggs and realized not only did I have to crack 10 of them, but also perfectly separate them for whipping the egg whites later on. After a minor freakout, I undertook a painstaking process that would put any therapist's dexterity exercises to shame. I carefully cracked each egg, finagled the top half off with one hand while somehow keeping the yolk from falling out, then slowly drained out the white while not breaking the yolk. I did this 10 times.
Later I learned this trick, but not without banging my head against the wall that I didn't know it earlier. The incident taught me to be thoroughly prepared, not just in tackling a recipe, but in any endeavor in life. You'll never regret it.
8. Salt and pepper: Have goals, but be practical.
It's always important to have goals to work towards in rehab, and mine for the longest time has been to use a pepper and salt grinder. I would attempt it over and over again to no avail. I would either cave in and have someone else do it for me, or be left with under-seasoned food if no one was around.
Eventually, I took a practical cue from my years in professional kitchens. I now pre-grind peppercorns and keep a batch in a small pinching dish for all my peppery needs. I also have a similar bowl for salt. I have no intention on giving up on my therapy goal, but I find there's also no shame in using whatever crutch I need until I'm healed.
9. Grating zest and cheese: Delegate better and get more done.
Nothing beats a Microplane for zesting citrus fruits or grating a mountain of Parmesan over a hot bowl of pasta. It's hard to use it, though, when you can't hold the grater in your hand. I often ask my mom to zest a ton of citrus for me and store it in the the freezer, so it's ready to use whenever I need it; the same goes for cheese. This is one of countless examples where delegating a task has saved me so much time and effort.
10. Plastic wrap: Cheaper isn't necessarily better.
Using plastic wrap is inevitable in the kitchen and what I've learned this past year is this: Invest in your plastic wrap. Don't buy cheap boxes of the stuff; their flimsy cutting blades never work, are a waste of money, and will only make your life harder. I buy the commercial-grade wrap because it sits securely on my counter and it doesn't require me to handle the box while pulling out the wrap. The cutting blade is very sturdy and sharp and the width of the wrap is large enough to wrap things in one go.
Plastic wrap is one of those instances that cheaper isn't necessarily better. Once you switch, it'll be hard to go back.
Final Thoughts on One Year After Losing My Left Hand
My life will never go back to what it once was, nor will it ever be exactly how I planned it to look. Instead, I find myself in a sort of unanticipated third stage. In navigating this new terrain, my desire to create with my hands has taught me more about myself than I ever expected. I have achieved a new level of enterprise, awareness of my weaknesses and strengths, and appreciation for the people in my life.
I can't change what happened to me, but I do have a choice in how I face the obstacles that come my way. My endeavors in the kitchen are imbued with a richness that wasn't there before, and I hope they in turn inspire others to also overcome their fears of failure in the kitchen — whatever they may be.