Sometimes you've got to slow down and smell the toast

By Stacey Ballis
Updated May 02, 2018
Credit: Photo by Westend61 via Getty Images

I recently cut the crap out of my left index finger, nearly taking off the tip with a bread knife while slicing a loaf for morning toast. What hurt worse than the injury was the blow to my pride, having hurt myself doing the thing I am supposed to be really good at, requiring that I solicited ongoing assistance for the duration of the healing process.

I sucked it up, I leaned on my husband, grateful for his adeptness in the kitchen and the seamless way he stepped up, not just to keep the two of us fed, but to help me with my recipe testing so I could continue to work. As I healed, much more slowly than anticipated, I gradually started to test the waters in the kitchen. I hated that needing to keep the one finger out of the way meant that my strength was diminished on that hand, making simple tasks like holding a potato for careful slicing shockingly difficult and unwieldy. I hated that not being able to lift more than ten pounds with my left hand meant that I had to abandon all of my cast iron and enameled pots and pans in favor of less heavy equipment. But most of all, I hated the anxiety.

I have never been much of an anxious person. I sometimes get nervous about things, but more low-grade butterflies and not flop sweat. The closest I get to true anxiety is most often related to my life as a novelist. We fiction writers fill in the blanks on any story that crosses our paths, which makes us particularly susceptible to worst-case-scenario thinking. But suddenly cooking, my escape from anything unhappy, made me actually anxious.

My sanctuary happy place felt like the scene of the crime. It was more than a crisis of confidence; it felt like the tipping point. I am at an age where any unusual feeling in the body, any new ache or pain, registers an immediate thought of “is this a signal of something wrong or just the new normal?” When I cut my finger, doing the most mundane of menial morning tasks, something I did every day, it was a shock to the system. When the simple act of removing a slice of bread from a loaf went so epically sideways for no real reason, I wondered if this was the beginning of things going wrong in general. And things going wrong is something I’ve tried really hard to set myself up to avoid.

Our kitchen has no upper cabinets. This was a choice my husband and I made for two important reasons. One, I am a short person who will only get shorter as I get older. And two, I am a supremely klutzy person. We envisioned my golden years potentially filled with me pulling whole stacks of dishes down on my head or falling off step stools and fracturing my brittle bones left and right and decided to keep everything as close to ground level as possible, to hopefully preempt trips to the ER. I am fully aware of my propensity for spraining ankles and straining muscles, knocking into things and bruising myself endlessly. So wherever possible, I at least attempt to set myself up for success. I watch my feet on cobblestone streets instead of the local architecture, and I try to walk in the dead center of any space provided me. You have never seen a more careful girl than when I gingerly navigate the china section of the department store, always afraid of my bullish nature.

But while we built a kitchen that was as me-proof as possible, there is apparently only so much of me I can protect myself from. I needed to figure out a way to get my kitchen mojo back. So I decided to really unpack what had happened beyond the obvious. I was slicing bread for toast, and I wasn’t paying attention, true, but part of that was because of the speed at which I was operating. There were sausages in a skillet behind me on the stovetop, there was water boiling for coffee. And something clicked: I was working too fast.

I like to think I am an efficient multi-tasker in the kitchen, but efficient is not the same as quick. I started to think about the things that go wrong for me in the kitchen. Yes, everyone spills things and knocks things over, but I do it a lot. Anyone could accidentally clip the edge of the countertop with an occasional pot or pan or plate while loading the dishwasher, but we had to get an acrylic edge-covering cutting board because I kept chipping the countertop edge over the dishwasher. I might be naturally inclined to klutziness, but it suddenly became clear that I was exacerbating that inclination by operating at the speed of sound.

I’m not a restaurant chef. There is no one on the line to impress but myself. There are no tickets flying at the pass or irate customers waiting for food, it’s just me and my husband and whomever we have invited to dine with us. None of them would care if things took ten more minutes to get to the table. Maybe if I could figure out how to slow down my normal breakneck pace, I’d be less likely to create messes of my space or myself. And since one of the recommendations for people suffering from anxiety can be meditative mindfulness, I wondered if I might cure what was ailing me, and calm my newly acquired kitchen anxiety by putting myself in a different cooking mindset.

Meditation has never been something that appealed to me, but I have found occasionally that some breathing exercises can help when my mind is racing at bedtime. So I decided that I would try doing some breath work before beginning to cook, and to work on being fully present and mindful when working in the kitchen. I downloaded a calming app on my phone, and decided to commit to a full week of refocusing my energy in the kitchen.

Before heading to cook, I would sit down and turn on the app, set the guided breathing exercise for two minutes, and try to clear my head and concentrate on my breath. When I got to the kitchen, I would really focus on my mise en place, on moving calmly through the space, gathering equipment and ingredients, doing my prep. When I would reach for the knives, I would make sure that I was still breathing deeply, and I re-committed myself to my knife skills training, fingers tucked under, moving a little slower than usual. I noticed my dice was more consistent, my slices more even. If I caught myself speeding up, I’d return to the focused breathing and on slowing back down. I’m not gonna lie, it was a challenge. I struggled to maintain the slower pacing, trying not to get annoyed with having to actually think about things that used to be instinctive and intuitive. It was especially hard after a couple of days when I realized that it wasn’t like the food tasted any better. But I was all-in, forcing myself not to just abandon it because it felt unnatural.

On day four I noticed that the breathing I was doing before heading in to cook was sort of just continuing on its own once I was in the kitchen. Deep breath in, brief hold, longer exhale out. The food might be tasting the same, but I had definitely noticed a difference in the amount of stuff that ended up on the floor, and the banging around of equipment was noticeably less. So I kept going. I no longer have to sit with the app before I go to the kitchen, the breathing starts pretty naturally as soon as I head down the hallway. The slower pace no longer feels as forced, like I’m moving underwater, but instead like a calming languid movement through space that I have come to enjoy instead of dread. I’m still a klutz, but I am far more likely to be bumping into furniture in other rooms these days.

This morning, I got up, filled the kettle and set it to heat for tea. I selected a mug, prepped my tea bag, sliced a piece of bread and put it in the toaster. I was halfway through my crunchy piece of buttered goodness before it hit me: I hadn’t even thought about my accident when I was slicing the bread.

It made the second half taste that much better.