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Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 10:34 am

Single-handed cooking

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Food writer and critic J.J. Goode.

“Some people say the kitchen is where they clear their heads; for me, it’s where I face my demons.” J.J. Goode

I’m not a big believer in precognition, but if I’d been looking. I might have seen warning signs. I was reading a novel about a jockey who’d become a private detective after losing his hand in a riding accident. My son, Robb, had been urging me to watch the latest Hell’s Kitchen reality season: one contestant had survived despite having broken a wrist in an early episode’s “punishment.” I’d just listened to The Splendid Table on WUIS and heard an interview with J.J. Goode. Goode, a food writer and critic, was born with radial aplasia, a condition that he says makes his right arm “about the size and shape of a plucked turkey wing” and useful “only as a place occasionally to hang grilling tongs or shopping bags.” He was wryly amusing, and I remembered reading an article he’d written in July’s Gourmet magazine.

Next my mom lectured me, frustrated because she’d been trying to call me. “You always say I should keep my cell phone with me. Well, you should, too,” she said. “What if you fall?”

An hour later, I fell. Lying face down in muddy grass, I was in pain and feeling stupid. Why hadn’t I turned on the porch lights when I took the dog out on such a dark rainy night? I managed to roll over, sit up, and finally stand, using awkward crab-like movements I was grateful nobody could see. (My husband, Peter, was away camping.)

Back inside, I assessed the damage. One knee was badly skinned, bruised and swollen. It hurt, but was nothing compared to the pain in my right arm and shoulder. Still, I was pretty sure nothing was broken. Somehow I got undressed and into bed; but my arm hurt so badly that sleep was impossible.

Most of the next day was spent at an urgent care clinic. I had x-rays, (“nothing broken”) and was given muscle relaxers, pain pills, heat and ice advice and a recommendation to see an orthopedic specialist for probable torn ligaments and other shoulder damage.

At home, I quickly found that anything involving the use of my right hand and arm fell into three categories: 1) no problem, 2) possible, but painful, and 3) totally impossible. The first category consisted of a very few things that could be done only with my fingers, using no arm movement whatsoever. Thankfully, by resting my forearm on a stool that’s exactly desk height, they included typing on my computer, as long as I crossed my left hand over like a pianist to use the delete key. Tying shoes, dressing, in fact almost everything fell into the last two categories, except sitting around with an ice pack or heating pad.

My efforts at cooking would have been comical if they weren’t so uncomfortable. For the first few days, “cooking” consisted of microwaving leftovers. But moving beyond the microwave was a lesson in limitations. Peeling and cutting very small objects, such as garlic cloves, worked pretty well because I could just use my fingers. But a three-year-old with a plastic picnic knife could do a better job of cutting and slicing anything much bigger — especially anything round. Slow stirring with my left hand was fine; whisking splattered me and every surrounding surface.

My temporary situation has given me new respect for J.J. Goode, that Hell’s Kitchen contestant, and anyone else attempting to conquer the kitchen single-handed. I reread Goode’s Gourmet article with deeper appreciation. Others might use having just one hand as an excuse not to cook; he sees it as a challenge that’s sometimes frustrating, but one that can be met with humor and overcome with deep satisfaction. “Some people say the kitchen is where they clear their heads; for me, it’s where I face my demons,” he says.

Goode calls his short arm “perhaps the best of the worst” sort of handicap, and hasn’t let it keep him from doing much. He played sports (including baseball) as a child, tied his shoes, says he never missed having a right arm, and thought it wouldn’t interfere with anything he wanted to do for a living.

That was before he decided to become a food writer, and realized that “any self-respecting food writer should know how to cook, even if it’s just for the street cred.” Because he’d easily managed most everything else in life one-handed, he thought cooking would be no different until he discovered two large stumbling blocks: “wielding sharp instruments and hauling pots of boiling water.”

I more or less gave up after a few lame attempts at food prep, especially after Peter got home. Goode, however, plunges into and masters recipes that call for vegetables to be cut into precise cubes or meat into thin matching strips, though it takes him much longer than the average cook. Preparation for the braised chicken meal he describes in his Gourmet piece includes him cutting a whole chicken into pieces and dicing celery, onion, and carrot into “precise little cubes.”

Goode’s efforts haven’t just given him personal satisfaction: he’s been equally successful in his food writing career, publishing articles in several national publications. Most chefs work with a professional writer when they publish a cookbook; Goode’s collaboration with chef Adam Perry Lang, Serious Barbeque, made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Lang calls Goode “…a true master; probably the most talented food writer I know.”

As for me, my arm is slowly improving and I’m beginning to cook more. It’ll be a while, though, until I’m at Goode’s level. When his dinner guests praise his braised chicken with those precisely cut vegetables, he tells them, “Thanks, it was nothing.” But I know better.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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