Evolution of a Cook

I cooked spaghetti and meatballs for a friend on Saturday. I never feel more like my grandmom than when I am adding pinches of salt to tomato sauce that I made from scratch. Or when I am kneading balls of meat and spices. Of course, the apron helps.

I am never going to appear on a television show for my cooking skills. Or for any reason, I guess. (well, not unless those Queer Eye gents ever respond to my emails.) But for the last five or so years I have developed my cooking skills so that I can not only state that I am a competent cook, but I can mean it.

But it has been a long road.

Like many of those who were raised by my mother, I didn’t grow up learning to cook. There was no need; my mom spoiled us. She cooked every day (sometimes after working eight to ten hours). At times, she relied on quick and easy standards to quell the voluble hunger pangs of the four kids and the dentist banging their forks on her kitchen table. There was mac and cheese, hotdogs, grilled cheese, and tomato soup. But more often than not, there was homemade pasta dishes, meatloaf, vegetables, or potatoes.

Besides occasionally reheating dinner or putting meat in between two pieces of bread, I didn’t raise a finger to feed myself from the age of 0:001 to17.8.

In the college years I went to the cafeteria a lot, bought ready to eat meals in bags that had to be poked with forks and then put in a microwave. I reveled in body’s ability to metabolize quickly, and so I ate sandwiches. So many sandwiches. Cooking in my twenties meant that I upgraded to buying meals in boxes that required the addition of meat. These boxes often featured the words Helper, Hungry Man, or Shake.

“Oh I love to cook,” I used to say, knowing that it was hip for a man to know how to cook. I wasn’t really lying when I said it; I was just basing my statement on the premise that what I was doing was cooking. I had one dish to impress women (mahi mahi with asparagus), and ordered Chinese food so often that the delivery guy knew us by name and would pick us up beer and a dvd on the way.

In my thirties, cooking usually involved something fried. Sticks from fish, fried ham with cheese on bread, or frozen pizza. Occasionally, I made something from scratch, but the recovery time took something close to three days. My body played its eternal prank by shutting down metabolism all at once, and my waistline was such that I could have been added to NASA’s list of minor moons.

By the end of my thirties, I had decided that I no longer wanted to wheeze while opening the refrigerator, and so I got back into shape. This, I learned, to my consternation, included eating better food. Preferably food that doesn’t slide out of a box in its finished form.

And so, for the first time in my life, I bought a cookbook. I got another for Christmas. I registered on websites. I read blogs. I learned all of these new verbs noun collocations like to zest a lemon, to brine meat, to brown meat, to reduce a sauce. It was a linguistically marvelous time.

Sometimes I come home from a long day and rue the idea of preparing to cook. I make quick and easy standards, a little salt and pepper on a chicken breast and steamed broccoli. Not very inspiring, but adequate enough. But there is strength in the knowledge that I can cook whatever I want whenever I want. If Thirty Year Old Me had been confronted by a cabinet and fridge filled with only ingredients of food, he would have been baffled. If the food he was going to prepare didn’t already look like its finished form, then it was ignored. Mild increments in confidence go a long way. And now I can honestly say to people, “Oh I love to cook.” And I can actually mean it and it can actually be true all at the same time.

That said, I’m going to have a sandwich.

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