Monday, November 16, 2009

My story

I firmly believe that anyone can cook, and more importantly, that everyone should cook. It seems intimidating at first. Believe me, I know--I did not spring fully formed as a gourmet chef from my mother's womb. In fact, in my early adulthood (read: college), I actively avoided cooking. Gradually I realized that I didn't like eating crap, that I wanted my food to taste good, that I could make something that tasted better than fast food. What cooking knowledge I have has been hard-won, built from years of forced frugality and experimentation. Yes, I too have purchased and eaten Hamburger Helper and Kraft Mac n' Cheese (though not for many years, thank God). I too have cooked with dull knives and tin pans. I too have mangled recipes, burnt dinner, been forced to eat my mistakes because I couldn't afford to throw it away. Somewhere along the way, cooking turned from something I did because I couldn't afford to eat out to an actual passion.

Tastes change, people change. Despite an advanced degree in theatre, and years spent freelancing as a theatre critic, at some point theatre had ceased to be the draw for me it once was. Instead, I was spending all free time and brain power thinking about food—cooking, collecting cookbooks, experimenting with recipes, eating at restaurants, reading about wine, going to wine tastings, etc. I planned my vacations around cities with a vibrant food culture and cuisine—Rome, Buenos Aires. I threw elaborate dinner parties for my friends, just because I liked entertaining. I sought out underground restaurants, and started hanging out with people who considered liquid nitrogen machines to be standard home kitchen equipment. I daydreamed about winning the lottery and opening a seaside barbecue shack somewhere. Yes, folks—I had become A New York Foodie. Even on my limited budget. (See above re: theatre.)


The roots of my food obsession were deep. I grew up in the rural South, which meant I spent my childhood eating from scratch. My father and brother were avid hunters, so most of our meat came out of the woods—venison, squirrel, rabbit, wild turkey, fresh fish. Everything could be cooked in bacon grease, even the bread. (I never knew a household that didn’t keep an old coffee can on the stove, full to overflowing with bacon grease, until I got to college.) My mom kept a backyard garden that was almost an acre, and canned or froze the bounty. Fresh corn, tomatoes, all manner of beans and potatoes and squash and melons, greens, cabbage, peppers, okra, and of course an enormous herb garden. We lived so far back in the country that my parents still can’t get cable or wireless internet; which meant that growing up, I was mostly a stranger to the luxuries of color TV, dishwashers, automatic dryers or junk food. (Well, until adolescence anyway, when we got a color TV, dishwasher and automatic dryer. Still no cable, though.)


I was bored stiff, at the time, and like most teenagers thought it grossly unfair that we couldn’t afford MTV or Froot Loops. I didn’t begin cooking in earnest until well into my twenties, largely as a reaction against my rural childhood; but when I did, it came naturally to me. And I’d grown up in the cooking school of “take two handfuls of flour and add enough butter ‘til it looks right,” so experimentation came naturally as well. While my pantry contains many staples my grandmother’s never heard of (miso, truffle oil, anchovy paste, couscous), my cooking still depends heavily on bacon grease, homemade bread, and fresh vegetables. I have the most adventurous palate of anyone I know (“Tripe soup? Bring it on!”), but I would no more eat Hamburger Helper again than I would stab myself in the eye with a rusty fork. My father and brother still consider Twinkies and Mountain Dew to be a perfectly acceptable breakfast; I didn't want that to be my fate, didn't want to squander my calories on bland, sugary, overly processed junk. Why eat Twinkies, I reasoned, when foie gras tasted so much better?

So, what does this mean for you? It means that anyone can teach themselves to cook. At its most basic, cooking is just following directions. Anyone can follow directions. Get a good cookbook, find a recipe that sounds good, try it. If you make a mistake, if something doesn't turn out right, make notes in the margin. Try again. It will take time and effort, at first. But once you get the hang of it, conjuring dinner from scratch will take no more time and effort than Kraft Mac n' Cheese does now. My best-loved cookbooks are falling apart, cracking away from the binding, pages littered with all manner of stains, some pages literally loved out of existence. They all have notes in the margin--"More garlic," "ground pork not ground beef," "25 minutes!!," "try cranberries instead?" Once you get the basic recipe down, it's easy to start experimenting with it, to play with the seasonings, to substitute other things.  

The cost of accumulating a real kitchen--cookbooks, good knives, exotic spices--is daunting. I know, I've been building mine for years. But once you start getting the good stuff, its cost amortizes. Think of how much money the average family spends on lunches at work, pizza, Lean Cuisine dinners, processed crap. Think how much you'll save when you stop buying all that stuff. Now you can put that money--slowly--toward building a pantry. Cost of knives and pans aside, I spend less than $200 a month feeding two people. I can spend that little because I spent so much over the years buying good kitchen stuff on sale, on eBay, on craigslist. And practicing, practicing, practicing.

This is my gospel: that anyone could cook. That everyone should cook. Even if you're poor. Even if you don't know the difference between sugar and flour. Even if you work three jobs and have twelve kids. Cooking from scratch tastes better. It's cheaper. It's better for you. Most importantly, it tastes better.

Now that I know what I'm doing, cooking is fun. It's relaxing. When you're cooking, you can only think about cooking. The rest of the world fades away. I can spend a couple of hours banging around in the kitchen, wielding my knives, singing along to good music, trying things out, and at the end, my brain has been cleared out. And I have this really great thing to eat. That's so awesome.

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