Testing Traumas
January 8th, 2003

I am sitting behind a stack of index cards that rises three-and-a-half inches in the air, and if that doesn't seem very thick to you, I encourage you to take a second glance at a ruler and get back to me. Three hundred cards -- some of them are even the extra-large 5x7 kind -- that represent all I need to know for my horrible-beyond-all-possible-horribility, in-kitchen, eight hour, practicum lab test. The test is next Monday, and the following Saturday, I have the eighty-question written -- pie by comparison. Inscribed on that mountain of cards are the 97 techniques and 51 recipes I have to sear, skewer, and fricasee into my brain.

Come the fateful day, I walk into the kitchen, pull a card from the midterm stack, write out the memorized-by-the-will-and-grace-of-god technique, and make it. When I'm all decorated, glazed, adorned, and garnished with finely minced parsley, runners bring my test out to the blind tasters, who will grade me on taste, texture, creativity, presentation, originality, and, of course, whether I even got the friggin' thing right. If I screw up in the middle of the prep, like overbeat my genoise to graininess or can't recover from a chocolate seizure, I don't have time to start again -- there's no "do over" in the culinary kobayashi maru.

As I walked to school today, I really started to feel the knots. The knots that don't allow me to snarf down the lemon custard and almond glazed Danishes I practiced over the weekend. The knots that feel like they're producing a litter of lead knotlets somewhere south of my gorge. The knots that need to be smothered into oblivion by refried beans, guacamole, and beer but still refuse all entry to those who come knocking. I can't even recall the last time I was so freaked out by a test. I think it's mainly because of all the watching that's going to take place, and the performing under several gimlet-eyed proctorized chef instructors. They will be hovering over us like last week's grease fire, making sure we don't talk to each other, noting any mistakes we make in our preparations, and checking to see if we are using the utensils correctly. They carry clipboards. They're the kitchen equivalent of grade school hall monitors.

It really does get to me that we can't talk. Of course I understand the whys and wherefores, but for the last five months the fourteen of us have worked whisk by spatula at eight hours a clip. The kitchen, usually filled with good-natured cuisine cacophony ("Hot pan! I've got a HOOOOT PAAAAN coming through! You see this pan? It's HOT," "People, I just wanted to let you know that this sauce is now entering The Danger Zone. From here? There's just no going back."), is going to be silent. Eerily and unnervingly silent.

The sheer volume of crap I need to know backwards and forwards, upside-down and in the town is so staggering, my brain is having hysterical fits of paralysis every time I try to sit down and study. And this isn't the perfectionist-I-need-to-get-an-A-or-I'll-die-I'll-just-die in me hissyfitting either. Seriously? I'd be happy with passing. I'm so rattled I even started imagining what sort of slack they'd cut me if I suddenly walked outside, fell in the street, and sprained my stirring wrist. I mean, there's ice a good twelve inches of thickness out there, and I do have that collapsing ankles thing. It could happen.

I've also begun to talk myself around to believing that it would really be much better for my future career if some gastronomic Armageddon befalls me and whatever dish I pull. I figure if that happens, at least I will have something interesting to write about.

So, uh, wish me a catastrophe!



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