The Genesis of a Cook

4 Mar

It takes talent and effort to screw up macaroni and cheese; but when I was in my mid-teen years I managed to pull it off.

Honestly it was a simple mistake, I was cooking two boxes of macaroni because my family doubles the standard 2.1 children per woman. (It is awkward having 0.2 of a sibling, but Louis does a lot with so little existence).  I figured: double the ingredients, double the time. Unfortunately noodles boil at a pretty flat rate, no matter how many noodles there are. Thus my family was treated to delicious cheese mush. By delicious cheese mush I mean something that was only technically edible.

It was at this point I decided I would never cook.

That was a really bold decision to make, but I was pretty committed. I struggled to microwave ramen at the time, I didn’t really think that was the start to a good cooking career. I mean, you pour in water and microwave. Somehow memorizing that list of steps was too much. I figured it was in everyone’s interest if we just removed food preparation from my list of responsibilities. Despite my overwhelming teenage angst, I did love my family, and the idea of killing them accidentally with food poisoning was unappetizing.

Then one fateful day in my late teens, I was asked to watch the burgers on the grill. It is important to note that this was the extent of my responsibilities. It wasn’t “flip them after five minutes.” It was “watch them.” I suppose the idea was that I would raise the alarm if the ground beef tried to escape. I’ve never been good at listening though, so I started flipping them. And seasoning them. I had watched this process before, and it was simple. It was also masculine, which my wiry little teenage self desperately needed to be. (Man grill, man control fire!) An amazing thing happened:

These burgers were edible.

Suddenly I understood that I did not exude some sort of food-ruining field. In fact, if I bothered to pay attention, I could cook. Let’s be clear: I imagined that turning over burgers and sprinkling season salt on them constituted cooking. Regardless, I was hooked on grilling. Which led me to try more than burgers; I expanded into salmon, ribs, and chicken. If it had once been part of an animal, I was willing to give cooking it a try.

Now I make damn good burgers (Potter Spice Burgers they have been called, since I use over six different seasonings at least). But making a delicious burger is a cooking achievement akin to riding a tricycle: you have to try very hard to fail. I make damn good barbecue ribs, but that is like riding a bike with training wheels. As I became more confident in my cooking, I also became more aware that I wasn’t cooking anything impressive.

The first meal I am proud of came in late September of 2009. It was for a date night with a girl I was trying to impress back into a relationship, so I wanted it to be fancy and delicious. I decided on a unifying flavor theme of “apples” which seemed to fit the season. We cooked it together too, which I thought would be romantic (but just ended up making me look like an asshole). Regardless, the apple-stuffed chicken was superb. The apple-butternut-squash ended up alright. The apple-potatoes-au-gratin would have been great if I hadn’t mistaken teaspoons of salt for tablespoons of salt.

The meal wasn’t perfect, and it did not convince the young lady to get back with me, but it was a very educational cooking experience (I can assure you, I have never mixed up teaspoons and tablespoons again). Beyond just remembering measurements, I learned about shopping at markets (I got the apples and vegetables from a farmer’s market). I realized I needed to work on being a douchebag in the kitchen. I figured out that maybe an entire meal tasting like apples wasn’t the most creative idea (though the unity of flavor was intriguing). Mostly I learned that I like preparing meals, not just dishes.

Since then I’ve cooked off and on. As noted in functionally every blog I’ve ever written, this wasn’t the happiest time in my life so mostly I just sat around drinking and eating fast-food. Once or twice a month though, I’d ask a girl over for dinner and I’d cook her something nice. Orange rosemary salmon on a bed of wild rice (with just a hint of Valencia orange peel to bring it together of course) or maybe parmesan chicken (with too much Cheyenne in the sauce, for pizazz that makes it so the cook can barely eat it). I even paired wines with my meals. As emerged from my broody-depressed cave, I started grilling for friends and family too.

Now I’m cooking once a week. Something new, not always fancy, but something I haven’t personally done much before. This Saturday we’re having pulled pork, which I’ve never made. Not exactly an exotic dish, but one that most people enjoy. Next weekend, it’ll be curried chicken (with some tzatziki and pita to counter the spice). It’s an excuse to have people over, and I’ve found people always seem to bond well over food.

Part of the reason I’m cooking is because it’s a way to eat something delicious without spending too much money (though cooking for groups somewhat lessens that). Another part is that learning to cook new things is a fairly cost effective hobby. But really the main thing is that I love cooking.

I clear my mind when I cook. I don’t know how or why, but I know that when I cook, my mind is focused on cooking. I love the creativity of adjusting recipes, adding spices and experimenting with the food. It’s exciting in its super-domestic way. It just feels good. There is a hectic calm in the kitchen, during which school and money don’t really matter. It’s also nice that people at least say I cook well. I mean, I have liked almost everything I’ve cooked, so I trust them. But it’s nice to hear it from people you care about.

It doesn’t even have to be something complicated, just the act of preparing food seems to make me happier. So I make most of my own food now (even if it is mostly sandwiches). Eating at home is healthier too, which is pretty nice. Even if it’s just pasta salad, I have fun cooking it. Hell, last night I even made macaroni and cheese.

Got the timing right and everything.




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