How Discovering Prada and a Sackful of Grapefruit Has Made Me a Better Cook

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I recently tried an experiment where I signed up to receive a bottle of perfume that I knew nothing about except that the person choosing it (a respected expert) thought that it smelled ‘like a state of grace.’ There would be no labels, no name, no marketing. Just the pure experience of the scent.

When it arrived I gave it a sniff and thought it was OK. Not terrible but not something I would normally choose on my own. Still, I wore it for a month just to see what would happen. And with time my feelings about it changed. Ambivalence grew into curiosity and curiosity grew into appreciation. I gave it time, and it rewarded me with something new and wonderful. Something (and this is the important part) I never would have found on my own, using my own limited preferences.

And while the perfume (which turned out to be Prada’s Infusion d’Iris) is not my most favorite, it’s on my top five list now. I will definitely keep wearing it, at least until the bottle is gone. If I would have sniffed it in the store six weeks ago, I would have passed it by. Indeed, I may have never even picked up the bottle just because it was Prada and I don’t think of myself (not even remotely) as a Prada kind of woman.

What this taught me is that my preferences are not a fixed thing and are therefore not always trustworthy. As adults, we start to catch on to this as we outgrow our childhood likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to food and tastes. We realize that we can learn to like and even love things we spent many years assuming we hated. So we know it is possible. Yet we cling to our preferences and by extension, our beliefs about who we are. We fix our identity on these preferences, such as my rather cavalier “I’m not a Prada kind of woman.”

Of course this lesson translates beautifully to the kitchen. We all have ingredients or styles of cooking or flavor profiles that we are so-so about. So try this: Next time you’re at the market, pick up a something you can tolerate but aren’t necessarily thrilled about and bring it home to your kitchen. In other words, start with something you are ambivalent about as opposed to out-and-out aversion. Cook with it, taste it, eat it, share it. A few days or a week later, try it again. And again. Can you discover, and maybe even grow to appreciate, something outside of the limits of your preferences?

I’m trying this with grapefruit, which I’m usually quite so-so about. I don’t hate it but I seldom buy it and I would choose many other citrus fruits before it. So I picked up a sack from the market the other day and have started to work grapefruit into my meals. Last night I had a few sliced segments in a green salad with shrimp and avocado and a little bit of minced red chili. The leftover grapefruit juice went into the vinaigrette which also had some lime and fresh basil.

I took a bite and it was wonderful. I loved how the bitterness and fruitiness of the grapefruit bounced around my tongue and played with the heat of the chili. It was bright and lively and more than a little thrilling. The grapefruit added a whole new dimension to the salad and that newness and vibrancy spilled over into my body and into my wider experience of the world. Learning to appreciate grapefruit, I believe, is making me into a better cook.

It is a delight to discover and appreciate something that we would not normally choose on our own. It opens up our senses and sets off a chain of discovery and growth. We evolve not by staying with what is familiar and makes us comfortable, but through being open to what challenges us and moves up and out of our fixed places. This makes us better cooks, I believe, and possibly even better human beings, or at least a happier ones. For it’s one thing to smell like a state of grace, but it’s quite another thing to live it.

Who are you on the other side of your fixed ideas and preferences?