Dimitra, my firstborn, was seven months old when we moved to Greece for six months. She was just starting to eat solid food, so I packed my suitcase with as many jars of Gerber baby food as possible. I always thought baby food was disgusting and never dared to try it. I never questioned feeding Dimitra that nasty green mush. I was indoctrinated to believe that this stuff from a small jar was "baby food." It was what babies ate, like dog food for dogs.
From Baby Food to Culinary Confidence
Only days after we arrived in Greece, my aunt saw me feeding Dimitra the green slop from a tiny spoon and was utterly horrified. "You feed your baby Gerber?!" she exclaimed in her thick Greek accent.
"Yeah, why? It's 'baby food,'" I said, confused.
"Gerrrrberrr?! It's poison. This is not baby food. How long has it been in this jar? Have you read the ingredients?"
This was 24 years ago, long before I became aware of what's on food labels and understood the American food industry. My aunt said, "No! You will not feed your baby this plastic. You will feed her real food and make it with this." She handed me a 15-year-old baby blue mini food processor from Germany.
"But I don't know how. I don't even know how to cook," I protested.
"You will learn, or your baby will starve because we don't have Gerber in Greece."
My Aunt's Intervention and Kitchen Essentials
She told me to go to the market and buy a Glossa, a fish similar to a sole, along with potatoes, carrots, and parsley. She said to slowly boil everything in a small pot and, once it was soft and cooked, run it through the food processor, pour it into a bowl, and add a little olive oil on top. Dimitra hadn't tried potatoes or any meat yet, but my aunt assured me that food allergies in Greece were nonexistent, and this was how every Greek baby started eating solids.
I was nervous about cooking without being able to read the instructions on the back of the box. I had never really cooked with only fresh ingredients before. We bought the fish at the fish market and the veggies at the produce market from the local farmers.
My aunt also helped me buy cooking essentials like knives, pots, pans, and spatulas. Following her instructions, I put everything into some water in a small pot with a lid and simmered it for about 40 minutes. It smelled delicious. John asked if we would get to eat it, too. "That's the 'baby food'!" I told him. But I did plan to try it. After running it through the processor and adding the olive oil, I was surprised to see it looked just like normal "baby food."
I tasted it, and besides needing salt, it was delicious. Traditionally, Dimitra didn't love eating "baby food," and it was always a struggle to get it in her mouth. We had to ensure she was really hungry before she would eat it. This time, after the first taste, she was eagerly waiting with her mouth open for more bites. She ate three times what she normally did, with no mess, and she didn't spit any out. I was sold!
Learning the Formula
The next time I saw my aunt, I told her, "Your baby food tip is amazing! I'm completely all in. But Dimitra has been eating fish stew all week. I need some new recipes."
"Oh yes, of course. I will write them down for you. You can make all kinds of stews. You can also make rice with fruit. Next month, you can start introducing her to beef, lamb, and yogurt," she said.
A whole new world opened up to me. As I made each stew, I learned which vegetables paired well with which meats and which herbs and greens worked well together. Some stews had beef with beets and rosemary. Others had spinach, chicken, and apple. I began to understand the art of stew-making: pick one meat, a couple of vegetables (always including potatoes), and a few herbs, and you had a stew. I became the stew queen.
Confidence in the Kitchen, Confidence in Art
John and I stopped eating out and making sandwiches. Instead, we started eating Dimitra's baby food. I would just add salt to ours and not mash it in the processor. Sometimes, I made pasta or rice on the side and topped it with stew and some cheese. I felt utterly empowered by my newfound ability to cook. I didn't even need baby food recipes anymore; I knew the formula. I started to experiment and began sautéing ingredients in a pan and creating tons of pasta dishes derived from the baby stews. Now, I was a real adult, cooking healthy, delicious meals for my family.
With my newfound confidence in cooking, I started listening to neighbors about their recipes. My friend Emily, who lived next door, explained how to make Pastitsio and Moussaka. These were much more complex dishes, with a béchamel sauce and multiple steps, but the idea was similar. By the time Dimitra was a year old, she was eating our food instead of us eating hers. I no longer had to purée her food anymore, and she was eating soft chunks of our meals. She could eat almost everything.
This process reminded me of how I learned to create art. For a while, I had to follow step-by-step instructions, like following a recipe on the back of a box. It was monkey-see-monkey do. I didn't own any of the information.
Then, I started to figure out which elements worked together. I learned which colors complement each other and which don't. In creating a composition, I applied the same principles as in cooking – choose one meat, a few veggies, and always a potato. Every composition needs something to ground it, like black, red, or another bright color, and to take this ground color to the edges to hold the composition. Just as I learned to chop and prepare food, I learned how to load my brush with paint and which brushstrokes created the desired effects.
The Power of Immersive Learning
Like cooking, I gained confidence in my art, and I felt strong enough in my skillset to branch out and experiment. I learned that you can break the rules and see what happens, like adding lemon and cream to the same dish, if you know how to do it right to prevent the cream from curdling. Knowing how to break the rules is essential to being a good artist, just as learning from other artists is essential for being well-rounded and keeping your ideas fresh.
If I wasn't forced to make baby food from scratch every day, I would've never gained the confidence in such a short time. I had no choice. My baby needed to eat. At first, I didn't enjoy it and didn't feel comfortable. I was full of self-doubt and asked my aunt a lot of stupid questions, but this immersive cooking experience gave me the life-long skills to cook almost anything.
Making art is exactly the same. For a beginner to fully immerse herself in the world of art for about three months, she can foster confidence and baseline abilities to learn to paint almost anything. This process of immersion and experimentation is key to developing as an artist, much like how I learned to cook.