Cooking. Gross. So girly.

At least, that’s what my young self thought. Cooking meant wearing a frilly apron, maybe even a dress. Cooking meant being clean and neat. Cooking meant being a girl.

The Mayfly Incident: Kristin and Amanda Vail, Katie and Mary Gustafson. Photo by Ken Vail.

That’s me, second from the left, with my sister Kristin (left) and my cousins Katie and Mary (right). I am proudly proving my tomboyhood by wearing as many mayflies as could fit on my shirt.

I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to be a tomboy (that’s the vocabulary I had for it at the time, anyway). I wasn’t comfortable in the social spaces meant for women. Here’s what I liked to do as a kid: climb trees, make arts and crafts, read, play in the dirt, pick up bugs, ride my bike and study math and science. Here are the things that gave me extreme anxiety: sewing clothes, picking out outfits, baby showers, tea parties, and cooking.

You might notice a pattern there.

My parents tried their best to engage me in the kitchen, but I would have none of it. You see, my concept of cooking was firmly rooted in the myth of the 1950s housewife. “Nuh-uh, no way,” I told myself—and then ran outside to play and skin my knees.

Because I so vehemently refused to learn anything about it, I naturally had no idea how to cook. I was motivated enough to figure out how to make a pan of instant brownies, but that was about it. My younger sister, on the other hand, loved cooking. Sibling rivalry provided me with yet another reason to stick my nose up at entering the kitchen.

The upshot of all of my willful ignorance was that whenever I did try to cook anything, I was a basket case, and I inevitably messed it up. For instance, let me tell you about the time I infamously tried to make (a Betty Crocker mix) lemon meringue pie. I was so nervous that I used egg yolks in the meringue instead egg whites—which, as you probably know if you’ve ever made meringue, keeps it from becoming fluffy enough to peak. So, there I was: bent over the bowl, hand-held electric mixer clutched tightly, beating and beating and beating that darn meringue. My sister waltzes in, assesses the situation, and cheekily says, “You used the yolks instead of the whites, didn’t you?”

Oh, the shame! I never lived that down (When, over a decade later, I finally made a proper meringue, I sent my sister a picture just to prove that I could do it. So there!).

Thinking back, I really don’t know how I managed to sustain myself after I moved out of the college dorms and took myself off the campus dining plan. My mom was quite worried about that, so she gave me a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. I have vague recollections of eating a lot of canned soup and red beans and rice with hotdogs. Oh, and eggs. I could cook eggs (scrambled, over hard, hard boiled). Basic survival tactic, really.

Somewhere around two decades after my humiliating meringue fail, I now regularly tackle complex dishes, from homemade gumbo to duck confit.

What changed?

Well, the first thing that happened is that I got a job as a server at a farm-to-table tapas restaurant in Minnesota a couple years after college (“Tah-pas,” I would repeat with careful pronunciation to wide-eyed Midwesterners, “not topless.”).

The chef at that restaurant was younger even than I was. He was short, fiery, and brilliant—and absolutely passionate about food. This was not my first job at a restaurant, but it was the first at which I was unequivocally told that I, too, could understand cooking. In fact, it was a requirement. I had to be able to explain the dishes to the customers, after all. So I learned about rabbit confit and steak frites, handmade gnocchi and squid ink risotto, epoisses and calvados.

Amanda's first duck confit.

My first duck confit, lovingly documented.

And one day, I decided that I, too, could cook. In typically stubborn fashion, I went right from fried eggs to duck confit. And it worked! That was the best damn duck, like, ever. It tasted like confidence.

Nowadays, I really love to cook. It’s been several years since that first duck confit, and no, getting over all of my cooking anxiety wasn’t instantaneous. I still get anxious at times, but I can generally work through it. I enjoy the challenge, and I really enjoy the end result. Food is so amazing! Seriously, I totally nerd out over it now.

I still, however, remain highly uncomfortable in social spaces coded for women. Looking back, breaking through the wall of my cooking anxiety took two things: removing the gendered space and thorough and encouraging explanation. For whatever reason, Chef Justin was able to do both of those things for me.

The funny thing is, it’s not as if my dad didn’t cook. I mean, yes, he did the majority of the grilling, and my mom did the majority of the baking—but the messaging about “women belong in the kitchen” didn’t originate from them. I somehow internalized it based on growing up in the 1980s. Not surprising, really. Do you happen to recall the ads for the Easy Bake Oven?

I am repeatedly stymied and frustrated by activities that are strictly “for men” or “for women.” It just doesn’t make sense to me. Why stop someone from doing something simply because it doesn’t match their gender (whether perceived or self-identified)? That extends too, of course, to women in the professional kitchen. In spite of the fact that I became comfortable with cooking when taught by a man, I’m not blind to the fact that we still have a huge gender gap in restaurant kitchens. Women are “cooks” and men are “chefs.” Yeah, that stinks.

But you know what doesn’t stink, at least most of the time? My cooking. Sure, I’ve crafted the occasional disaster—but I’ve also made some pretty amazing dishes, if I do say so myself. In fact, I think I’ll tackle duck confit again this year. It’s been awhile, and my mouth is watering already.