How to Learn How to Cook

Friday, January 10, 2014

Begin cooking as a small child. A tiny hand reaching up to touch a cast iron pot on the counter. A tiny hand burned. Pain. Your mother picking you up and running cold water on the burned hand, fingers smooshed together. Unprecedented pain. A mother's hands under small shoulders, a knee boosting you toward cool water, the relief. Toward wisdom. Pots are often hot. Water is healing. Mothers are singularly important. 

This is the way to begin cooking.

Next take up a Cutco pairing knife from the collection amassed by your father while paying his way through seminary in the 1960s. Cut potatoes. Potato in one hand, knife in the other, the way you watch your mother cut potatoes into a smaller cast iron pot with an inch or two of boiling water. The way your Korean friends will later think is dangerous, wrong, "your way." The way you will later watch a Bosnian woman cut an onion. Our way. Your small hands will cramp, clutched against the knife handle. Cover the potatoes and brown the meat.

This meal is mashed potatoes and browned turkey burger cooked with the contents of a can of mushroom soup. Make this meal many, many times for your siblings who increase in number by one, every other year, until you are 8 and a half. Be grateful for your family's simple meals. 

Go to Paris with your mother. Learn how to drink wine, how to eat a salad. How to linger at a table. Smell spices that will etch into you. 

Go to college and forget to eat breakfast on your way out the door. Forget to eat lunch on your way through the day. Eat mainly dinner, at home.  

Study in France. Live with a woman the introduction paper says is a "good cooker." Learn to beat eggs and sugar to double their volume instead of creaming the butter and sugar. Know lemon juice in a new way. Taste cheese and good yogurt and onion jam. Become intoxicated by market smells. Make vinaigrettes. Begin to understand the relationship between acids and sugars. Peel mushrooms. De-stem garlic. Your mother, who lifted you up to the cool healing water, will send a recipe for cheesecake. Make this several times. Eat entire serving bowls of spaghetti carbonara, jars of Nutella with a spoon, and what will amount to crates of grocery store creme brulé, stashed unrefrigerated in your desk drawer.

Live for weeks on canned tuna from a Swiss friend and wasa bread, hopping trains with the woman who will become your sister-in-law. Savor the occasional bowl of pasta and fresh cherries.

Go to Turkey to stay with your oldest brother. Taste even better yogurt, with a crust. Begin a lifelong craving for Ayran. For things you cannot remember. Learn a whole new way of tomatoes.

Graduate college dried up, spent. 

Spend a year eating in Korea. Taste only gochujang, a red, hot pepper paste, for the first two months and then find the layers, the depth, the nuances. Live with a woman who cooks like a chef, makes her own yogurt, and occasionally lets you stir pan-roasted sesame seeds. Eat vegetables. Eat meat. Eat through the yearly cycle of fresh fruit. Using thin metal chopsticks, eat hot fresh tofu between layers of cold kimchi in a drafty teacher's lounge. Eat rice. Eat noodles. Eat seafood. Eat through teacher's dinners, family gatherings, late nights with friends, food poisoning, and heartache. 

Go home, for what you think will be a year, stashing kimchi in the fridge and gim in the pantry. Know depths of hunger met only with rice, salted seaweed, pickled cabbage. 

Read cookbooks in the early morning hours, the hours after despair, the hours you cannot sleep. Cookbooks are neutral, even if the kitchen is a battleground. Recipes are structure. If, then. They feed a hunger unsatisfied.

Move to a lovely apartment in a small town and cook, for the first time in your life, for one. Learn, finally, to love mush, your father's standby breakfast. Drizzle it with Vermont maple syrup your landlords bring for you. Learn also that you cannot, for the life of you, figure out how to cook for one. Notice the butter goes bad before you can eat it all, which is ridiculous. Move above the garage, back to a kitchen where a lack of butter and a lone milk jug in the fridge cause panic. Home. 

Cook old staples, cook new recipes. Cook several large Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. Decide, next year, to make paella, whether or not anyone else agrees. Try and fail to figure out popovers. Cook food you do not like. Cook food only you like. Cook food guests do not understand and vocally do not appreciate. Cook through cancer, through weddings and new babies. Cook through deaths and moves and changes. 

Walk away, now and then, from the stove, the kitchen, home, only to find yourself going back, not because of expectations or requirements or guilt. Find yourself back at the stove, spoon in hand, because of desire. Because cooking is creative, necessary work. Because you love it and are good at it and because there is still so much more to know. 

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