Jennifer Griffin on Managing a Kitchen as an Amputee

Image courtesy of Jennifer Griffin

Would you be able to manage a kitchen if you no longer had the use of one—if not both—of your hands? This question came to me as a colleague—who is quite kitchen savvy and is a fellow brown bagger—had to go in for shoulder surgery, leaving her with only one usable arm for the next six weeks. She was told point-blank that cooking for herself was not an option and that family would have to fill in—and that just wouldn’t do.

Google searches for “cooking with a broken arm” or “one-armed cooking” were fruitless, with the latter phrase simply turning up lots of parenting sites. Perhaps everyone is told to grin and bear it while recovering from surgery and that’s the way things are.

But what if the appendage is permanently lost? Searching for “amputee cooking” didn’t generate a wealth of information, but it did bring up a YouTube video of Jennifer Griffin making brownies. Normally, this is an unremarkable activity. But Griffin is a quadruple amputee, the result of a sepsis infection. While some might see the lack of either hand—let alone both—as an end to a life of cooking, Griffin took a constructive attitude and figured out how to revamp and revise her methodology for pulling a meal together. She was kind enough to correspond via email to tell me about her new relationship to the kitchen.

What was your relationship to your kitchen like before the infection?

I enjoyed baking a lot and always have but I wasn’t cooking meals as much. My husband loves to cook—lucky girl that I am—and got me much more interested in taking time to learn about what I was eating and where it was coming from. That said, after I got sick I had more time on my hands (excuse the pun) and could learn. So I became much more interested after getting sick.

During recovery, did you raise the question of how to cook for yourself with your doctors?

It was interesting to me that cooking hardly even came up in discussions with my rehab doctors and therapists. I expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to manage the kitchen. So, one day I made lunch. Mac and cheese—great start! I’m not sure they knew exactly how far to take me so we pushed the envelope every day.

What kinds of resources were available to you that addressed cooking for people in your situation?

Not much at all. There is a site I use called Patterson Medical that offers some devices in addition to several items in Williams-Sonoma. However, I was looking for an instructional class with a teacher who could really think outside the box. No such luck.

What was the first dish you tried preparing?

The mac and cheese I made while in rehab and was a bit sketchy, but edible. Then I made brownies when I got home and the taste was great but I recall the presentation being a little questionable. The good thing on the brownies though was I remember having a desire to learn how to do it right and I started practicing!

What kitchen skill was the most difficult for you to re-learn or adapt?

I would say learning to stir, cracking an egg and cutting. If I’m not using a mixer, anything I stir moves the bowl around since I can’t hold onto it. So I’ve learned to have my bowl in a corner that the bowl can push into & stabilize or use something on the bottom that makes it stick.

Learning to crack an egg was fun. That just took trying over and over and now I do it without thinking. Since I can’t hold a knife it’s very difficult to cut/dice, etc. So, I’ve learned how to use a pizza slicer (ones with thick handles and I can grip it and use the rolling blade) and found a few good choppers such as this one from Williams Sonoma.

How did you navigate around the varieties of food packages?

It wasn’t like I had a real strategy for this. I just played with packaging and devices. Over time I came to realize what worked best. Most things that come in bags with a Ziploc type packaging and some boxes, I use scissors to open. I’ve learned to lay the package flat on the counter and open it with the scissors. The counter supports the scissors for me and I can open and close them in a special way. The one item I’m still having problems with are cans. I haven’t found an opener that I can use very well yet. Even if it’s electric I have to stabilize the can in some way. So, if you can work that out for me it would be great.

Reading your website, the Positive Living for Active youth (PLAY) Foundation was created to get amputees involved in physical activities. Is cooking/kitchen skills a part of PLAY Foundation programs?

Absolutely! We haven’t had anyone apply for that yet but we would support the request 100%. PLAY is all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying things that bring out the applicants strengths. If we received a cooking application, depending upon the request, we would find a chef or school that would be willing to work with that individual, provide the financial grant, and be the facilitator during the process.

Is there a key piece of advice you would offer someone in a similar situation who wants to get back in the kitchen?

My advice would be to not be afraid of exploring and start looking at a utensils for more than what they are (e.g. using a pizza slicer as a knife). There are ways of getting it done it just takes practice and the desire to accomplish a fun challenge!

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