We all have our “if only”s.
If only I hadn’t used the word ‘ass’ during that job interview with the editor at the giant publishing house.
If only I remembered to wear a padded bra when I was on that jenky HGTV show so my nipples didn’t stick out on camera.
If only during my culinary school instructor audition I didn’t mention the time I gave myself food poisoning.
Just when you think you’ve put an “if only” to bed, it leaps up to menace you. So you can’t put it back to bed. You have to cut its head off.
Fourteen years ago, Julia Child gave me the best career advice on earth. And I was too concerned about the poison oak above my upper lip to listen.
The poison oak was a big, gross deal. It seeped and crusted and itched and was impossible not to pick at. If only I hadn’t gone off the running trail to pick blackberries. If only I hadn’t stood in a cluster of poison oak as I ate blackberries. If only I hadn’t wiped the sweat off my upper lip with the back of my poison oak-tainted hand. The breakout was in full force when I flew down to San Diego to cook for my aunt’s 50th birthday blowout.
Freshly delivered from cooking school in New York, I churned with a powerful yet unfocused ambition to make it as a writer. My wonderful aunt, always one of my biggest cheerleaders, took me to a Julia Child event at a bookstore. Julia was promoting Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home, and we gleefully clutched our brand-new copies as we waited in the snaking line of admirers.
My intention was to have Julia sign my book. And then to get the heck out her way. I wanted to express my adoration of her by not being a nuisance. But as my turn with America’s greatest culinary icon came, my aunt burst forth. “Sara’s just graduated from the CIA and she wants to be a food writer!” she gushed. I blushed, rendering the skin under my festering rash a blotchy ruby shade. I felt like a giant neon sign flashing “DISEASE!” buzzed right above my mouth.
Julia didn’t miss a beat. “Wonderful, wonderful,” she said, utterly indifferent to my gruesome facial blisters. “Here’s what you’ve got to do. Join the IACP, the International Association of Culinary Professionals.” Then, to the bookstore staff: “Does anyone have a piece of paper I can write on?” Multiple store employees scrambled and quickly obliged. Julia wrote “IACP” on the paper and handed it to me. “It’s very important to connect with your professional community. And keep on writing. Don’t give up! Just do it, do it, do it!”
Back in my new home of Sonoma, I glued the paper in my journal. I didn’t give up writing, but I didn’t join IACP. I figured I’d get around to it once I was real. Once I had more articles in pretty magazines. Once I had my name under a well-respected masthead.
Just this past fall, I did join. It took me thirteen years, during which I had my name under several mastheads and a handful of articles in pretty magazines. My writing won a few awards, and my skills as a chef deepened (even though I really did give myself food poisoning once–I know, I know). Yet all that time, I didn’t let myself think I was good enough to run with the big dogs.
The poison oak appeared on my upper lip, but the real affliction was inside me, a pox upon my confidence. I just got back from the 2014 IACP conference, and everyone there saw me as the dynamite writer and chef I know I am, because I finally told the poison oak to fuck off.
When a successful, caring person is generous enough to give you advice, don’t just savor it. Act on it. Otherwise, it’s only an “if only”.
This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I contribute.