I traveled to Budapest “by myself” but, with Moshe Feldenkrais on my mind, I don’t feel particularly alone. Last Sunday, after chatting with a practitioner at a tea house, I walked home and noticed I was hungrier than usual. I stopped at the local grocery store, which has a bit of everything. I thought I’d get ingredients for what would have been a third batch of paprikás chicken, a dish my father used to prepare. By the time I arrived, within two hours of closing, the small meat section had been nearly picked clean. I noticed one package of goulash beef, something I had not seen there before.
A voice in my head said, “It’s the last package. No one else wanted it and it must be the worst.”
I wasn’t sure whose voice it was, but it wasn’t mine. I looked at the meat. Even though I generally don’t buy beef, it looked red and fresh. Rather than being the “worst”, it was the best option I had since I wanted to cook something. I put it in my shopping basket, even though I don’t recall making goulash before. As I waited in line to check out, I saw tubes of gulyáskrém (goulash cream) and took one. I already had onions and paprika at home. How hard could it be?
After unpacking my groceries, I looked online for a recipe in English. The first one that popped up, on a British site, had many positive reviews. I glanced through the instructions. They said to dredge the beef in flour. Being sensitive to gluten, I did not have regular flour. Nor did I have gluten free flour. Rather than get stymied, I decided to pulverize some paprika-flavored rice cakes into crumbs and dredge the beef in those. Why not? Repurposing the cakes made me feel creative and resourceful. Smashing them to smithereens proved to be fun and cathartic, as if my fingers were crushing perfectionistic expectations.
As I read through the recipe, I realized I did not have two ingredients, white wine and beef broth. I also noticed that the recipe did not call for “goulash cream”, something that is probably not easily available outside of Hungary. No matter. By then I was committed to making dinner, however it turned out. I chopped and sautéed onions. I trimmed some of the fat from the meat before rolling it in rice crumbs. For liquid, I used water. I squirted some “goulash cream” into the stew. I added mushrooms and potatoes (not in the recipe) to the one large pot available, a bit on the flimsy side and not ideal for slow cooking. Mine would be a heavily improvised, not a perfect, goulash. While teaching at Amherst, Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Perfectionism is an idiotic way of living.”
That is certainly true in regular life and even so in an unfamiliar environment. Imposing standards when they are not justified is a recipe for misery. Cooking instructions can be seen as a rough guide or a series of specific hurdles to overcome in order to arrive at a result that worked for someone else under different conditions. I am sure many Hungarians could school me on making goulash, point out the best place (and time of day) to buy stew beef or direct me to a restaurant that specializes in it. But that wasn’t the point. One point was to feed myself given the constraints of the kitchen and pantry. Another was to ride the wave of creative energy that inspired me to cook in the first place, rather than squelching it. From my Feldenkrais training that when we do something for the first time, or the first time in a while, all we need to do is make an approximation. That’s it! Set the bar low. We have to be willing to suck initially in order to improve, rather than over exerting ourselves for a praiseworthy result. Thinking of goulash that way removed the pressure to produce anything resembling…goulash.
In checking the stew, I noticed that even the lowest heat caused the liquid to boil, likely toughening the meat. Having turned a brisket into shoe leather once before and served it to people, an episode that caused me to avoid cooking beef for years, I placed the pot between two small burners to better distribute the heat. That seemed to work. As the stew bubbled more gently, I thought about an Italian fellow I met while walking El Camino de Santiago. Good-natured with a wide grin, he offered to cook dinner for everyone at an albergue in a small village in the middle of nowhere. I don’t believe I was alone in feeling excited that an Italian would prepare a meal, relieving us from cobbling together a cold supper from the tiny shop in town. We each chipped in a few euros. Yet, his need to slowly cajole the chopped onions to sautéed perfection didn’t take into account the real hunger and fatigue of those he’d wanted to serve. In fixating on the onions, he’d forgotten that we would have been happy eating anything warm. As our wide-eyed anticipation turned into eye rolls of impatience, someone finally convinced him to speed things up. He served his pasta dish with a flourish. Still, I couldn’t detect the difference in flavor the extra 30 minutes had made.
As my stomach growled, I decided to eat the goulash, rather than let the meat soften longer. The flavor? Delicious. The texture gave my jaw muscles a work out. Still, I don’t regret making it. The next day I came down with a terrible cold and felt relieved I had hearty food to tide me over. More importantly, in following my impulse, cooking had become a chance to play and experiment rather than an obligation to perform for the invisible audience of critics, rule followers, and sacred cow defenders who lurk in the peanut gallery of my psyche. When cooking (or anything else) is burdened by too many caveats or demands, it can cease being an act of self-care and creativity and turn into an occasion for self-rebuke. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “The object of this learning is to remove outside authority from your inner life.” Sometimes the easiest place to start identifying and removing these authorities is in the kitchen.
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