I’m a Southern girl; I was practically raised in a kitchen, watching my momma cook. She and my aunties always made everything from scratch (think pie-and-biscuit nirvana) — with hardly a cookbook in sight. Culinary mavens who have mastered the fine art of “a little bit of this” and “a pinch of that,” they consistently improved upon perfection and had me frustrated that cooking skills aren’t hereditary. My little culinary additions and modifications have never served me well, so I’ve learned to follow a recipe to the letter and save my creative riffing for putting together killer outfits for my girlfriends (they don't call me First-Date Outfit Master for nothing!).
And yet, in spite of my resignation, I can’t help but feel a touch envious when I think about Ina Garten. Like Garten, I have a home in the Hamptons, and I swear a Barefoot Contessa sighting is as highly regarded by my family as a Bigfoot sighting. Not only is Ina elusive, but in my mind, she's also quite magical. Floating seamlessly through life, collecting bits and bobs of edible heaven throughout East Hampton, Ina's mastery of all things culinary fascinates me. Somehow, breakfast, lunch, and dinner — most often created on a whim — become highly evolved masterpieces when put together by Ina (probably with her eyes closed and one hand tied behind her back). She is a chic domestic goddess with a crown made of goat cheese, heavy whipping cream, and assorted organic berries.
To understand the depth of my love for Ina and why, in my imaginative mind, she sits on a pedestal fashioned from butter and sugar, we'll have to go way back to my early days of modeling. I was living in London, learning the ropes, and being exposed to an incredible new world. Coming from a small town in Kentucky (Go Murray!), I viewed London like it was another planet. The sights and sounds, the incredible architecture, the British accents — every day was an adventure.
I distinctly remember going out to dinner one night and having the most incredible dessert arrive at our table. There was meringue and cream and strawberries, and it was divine. One spoonful of the stuff turned me into a Eton Mess disciple; I'd never had a more delicious dessert. To this day, anytime I see it on a menu, I have to order it. In fact, I love it so much that we even served it at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding.
Then, about 15 years ago, I was on a modeling job out in the Hamptons when I happened upon Ina Garten’s store, The Barefoot Contessa, and promptly bought her cookbook. The shop itself was almost more than I could handle — curated so beautifully that I wanted to buy everything — but, even more than that, I wanted to be just like Ina. I was determined to turn my awe into becoming a flawless hostess and chef extraordinaire myself.
I had a chance to show off my domestic skills a couple of summers ago, when my house was overflowing with my girlfriends, their husbands, and their children. This was the perfect moment for me to bust out my Ina recipes and show my friends and family just how highly evolved of a domestic goddess I actually was. I mean, I pulled out all the stops. I spent all day in the kitchen. I dragged out my best serving dishes and set aside a gorgeous crystal bowl for the Eton Mess grand finale.
The first course was a super-yummy bruschetta with ricotta cheese. Everyone loved it. Second course was a skirt steak salad with arugula and Parmesan. They ate it up. It was one of those meals where everyone was quiet because they were too busy eating and enjoying.
I was beaming when it came time to put the final touches on my dessert and present it. This was the moment I had been waiting for. Earlier in the day, I had spent 20 minutes at the market, making sure I had chosen the most perfect raspberries. I was not leaving anything to chance; I had prepped it all with absolute confidence. I began to stir my overpriced raspberries over medium heat to get the juices going. As my berry mixture simmered, I contemplated my imminent culinary victory: If only Ina — and all my southern kin — could see me now, I thought. I deftly folded in the Framboise liqueur and turned my attention to completing the last step: whipping the cream.
My hand blender was quickly transforming the liquid into stiff peaks of cream, and I excitedly reached in for a taste to see if it needed more sugar. But, I was still whipping the cream! With the blender on, in the bowl! All at once, my finger was cut wide open. There was so much blood that at first, everyone thought it was raspberry juice. It wasn’t until I almost fainted that they realized how serious my injury was. My friends immediately mobilized to wrangle children (my son, Brooks, was only an infant), and I was off to the hospital.
I guess I was on auto-pilot — driving myself to the emergency room, my hazard lights on the entire way, probably blowing through stop signs. Somehow, I made it in one piece. Eight stitches (and a doctor's warning that I might not get the feeling back in my finger) was not how I had planned on ending my dinner party.
Even though my domestic-goddess night ended in blood and tears, I have to say, it taught me something. I learned that not everything has to be perfect, and my ability (or lack thereof) to prepare a fancy dessert doesn’t have any bearing on what kind of wife or mother I am. I don't need to be Ina Garten; I just need to be myself — and accept that as good enough.
How we survive life’s hiccups (and the imperfect dinner party was just that: a hiccup) is where the magic lies. Sure, I didn't so much as glance at my hand blender until this past summer, when I re-attempted — and finally succeeded in creating — the infamous dessert. But, somewhere along the way, I stopped caring so much about having flawless entertaining skills. Instead, I just let myself be. Oh, and I unplugged the hand blender before tasting the whipped cream.