I like to learn things. It’s my hobby. I learn about irregular Latin verb conjugation and traditional Norwegian whittling the same way other people absorb movies or fitness, and as you can imagine, I am super fun at parties. It’s for this reason that it surprises the people who know how I feel about the power of a library card that until relatively recently, I was as helpless in the kitchen as a tiny baby fawn, and just as great at cooking.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly gifted at it now. I’m more of a less-tiny baby fawn (can deer be teenagers?) with opposable thumbs these days. Improved, but nowhere close to securing my own cooking show, unless people would tune in to a YouTube channel of me swearing at a soupy biga (an Italian bread preferment) that’s threatening to become sentient, something I did earlier this week.
The people who know me best are even more surprised at my heretofore complete ineptitude in the kitchen, because I’ve always been a pretty self-sufficient person. Years of institutionalized living prepared me to do things like wash my own damn laundry and file my own taxes and jimmy open locked car doors for… reasons.
I could do each of these things well before I turned 16, and yet my cooking skills hovered somewhere between “microwave a Pop-Tart” and “dissolve a bouillon cube in almost hot water” until my mid-20s.
Cooking, for me, belonged to other people. It belonged primarily to people who had consistent access to food, something that is still almost novel to me, though it’s been a very long time since I’ve been the really bad kind of hungry.
But it also belonged to the people for whom food was important to family life. These people were not my people. These people had a pasta recipe that was generations old, cookie-baking grandmas and giggly mother-daughter Thanksgiving dinner cooking seshes. They had big dining room tables and favorite recipes with secret ingredients, and when their kids left home, they picked at their trays in the campus cafeteria and said things like, “This lasagna is good, but my mom makes the best stuff.”
I, on the other hand, had industrial packs of powdered eggs and prepared meals that came on trucks, with identical textures whether the label read “Seafood Newberg” or “Salisbury Steak.” I had an iron stomach and no palate for the subtleties of someone’s mom’s lasagna.
And if you had asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook, I would have been sneeringly condescending about it and told you that I didn’t need to and, in fact, didn’t want to learn how to stupid cook stupid lasagna with stupid tossed salad. For a while, that was true — as far as I was concerned, cooking sucked.
But I’m at least self-aware enough to admit that it sucked in the same way that having a Lamborghini must suck because the insurance is expensive; in your heart you know you want one, but wanting things is too corny, so you act apathetic instead. I was very invested in my tough poorphan persona. In my defense, I read The Outsiders way too many times. Ugh, Socs… amirite?
All of this eventually changed when I had a daughter near the end of my college education and suddenly found myself in the middle of a family for the first time. See, the thing about babies is, eventually they need solid food, and you’re legally required to make sure they get it. Ideally it will be reasonably healthy food that requires more than “pierce film here, microwave on high” by way of preparation.
So at 21, for the first time ever, I stood in front of a crusty beige electric range in my rental apartment, a nonstick skillet in one hand and a dollar store spatula in the other, ready to do battle with some chicken cutlets.
I sucked at it, obviously, and my child spit it out immediately, laughing at my baffled reaction. But I was also intrigued. What had I done wrong? How do I make it not taste like a cellophane-wrapped sponge? Should I buy salt or something? Just like that, the learning switch sort of flipped over in my mind, and I was insatiably curious. I checked out books. I watched cooking shows. I made painful phone calls to people like the woman who would one day be my mother-in-law, who walked me through pounding chicken breasts with the bottom of a heavy glass to flatten them. Shortly before I graduated, I made chicken cutlets that my child ate and actually enjoyed. I wrote down what I had done in excruciating detail and marked it “keeper.” I was becoming those other people — I just didn’t know it yet.
After graduation, the economy imploded, and I ended up staying at home. Domestic life was boring but easy as far as toilet-cleaning, child-rearing and baseboard-dusting went, and despite having what I considered to be some pretty anti-hausfrau bona fides, I looked forward to 4 p.m., when it was officially appropriate for me to start making dinner.
I learned how to make pizza from scratch, and my family ate it on the roof of a corporate office building when my husband had overtime. I still consider that to be in the top 10 as far as happy memories go, and I realized the transition was complete. Food was no longer sad soup kitchen trips or chafing dishes full of ambiguous stew at a group home. It was homemade pesto, creamy almond kofta and red peppers roasted over a gas burner.
I still wasn’t good at it — I averaged something edible every 10 attempts or so and injured myself more than is probably normal. I have grated my pinkie while zesting lemons. I have sliced through a fluffy sandwich loaf only to hit something solid (my thumb bone), and I have sat on the couch for hours with my arm slathered in yogurt up to the elbow (it’s a long story, but let’s just say that if you’re making tamarind chutney and f*** it up, don’t put it in the same garbage disposal that you just fed raw chilies to. Or at least, don’t try to unclog it afterward with your bare hands. Definitely don’t use that hand to take care of bathroom stuff after the fact). If I die young, it will probably be in a food processor accident.
As hokey as it sounds, learning to cook was ultimately more about learning how to have a family. I was inept and ignorant on both counts and required a simultaneous education for each. I might not have a recipe box bursting with generations of shared recipes, but I almost prefer what I do have — a messy amalgamation of the people who always picked up the phone for me on nights when I was floundering in the kitchen, genetic obligations notwithstanding.
I have the chao ga that a friend’s mother taught me how to make over Facebook chat, the same one I serve my daughter when her stomach is upset, as that mother did for my friend. I have a recipe for a complete vegetarian thali with a patchwork of Gujarati, Punjabi and Odishan curries and chutneys that a circle of suburban aunties painstakingly walked me through for hours one rainy afternoon while our toddlers napped in another room. There’s my mother-in-law’s turkey and spinach meatballs, a former boss’s flawless tortillas and a onetime roommate’s baked mac ‘n’ cheese.
Then there are the things I’ve learned or concocted with my own family or by myself, like my husband’s addictive salsa or a potpie that’s perfect for January evenings. I’m still not great at cooking, but I’m starting to understand the appeal and the importance it holds. The topic is particularly timely. As my daughter gets older, she becomes more curious about the magic cooking seems to hold. The mysterious process of preparation and combination that yields a meal intrigues her, and she finds it all very grown-up. She likes to perch on a stool at the kitchen island and talk to me as I cook, and occasionally the topic turns to what I’m doing at the stove.
“What are you making tonight?”
“Spaghetti alla carbonara with zucchini. I thought we’d take it easy since I had to work so late.”
“Is that the one with the cucumbers that aren’t cucumbers?”
“You got it.”
“But how do you make it?”
“Here,” is what I always tell her, dragging a step stool up next to me and passing her a spatula. “Let me show you.”