Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Food Story - Part V: Learning to Cook

(This is the final installment in a five part series all about my history with food. The first four installments are here, here, here and here.)

Some people learn to cook at a very young age. Tugging at their mom's aprons. Growing up covered in flour. Shocking their families with prodigal talents. Never wanting to leave the kitchen.

I was, quite decidedly, not one of those people.

My mom encouraged me to enjoy the kitchen when I was little. By forcing me to do the dishes. I think it backfired. Actually, what I really think is that she, like me, is a little bit of a control lover - and control freak - when it comes to her kitchen. So while my dad was always trying to tell my brother and sister and I to help her, she was trying just as hard to keep us out of her way.

And thus, my love of cooking was not born when I was young.

Fast forward to sometime around my 25th birthday. I was living in downtown Baltimore with my friend Alison (the same friend who took me on my first trip to Whole Foods), eating pretzels with guacamole for dinner three or four nights a week. And popcorn-plus-ice cream for dessert. And Miller Lite for dessert-dessert.

Then I met Cooper.

For our second date, he invited me over to his house, where he cooked dinner for me. It wasn't anything super-fancy - lots of grilled meats and grilled vegetables and some rice that, if I remember correctly, was not actually grilled. He knew how to cook. I was in trouble.

Within the next few weeks, as our relationship got more serious, my inner housewife started to bloom. Despite the fact that my mom spent my youth shooing me out of the kitchen, I realized that I'd picked up a little bit of interest in cooking from her. But absolutely no knowledge.

So, I did what any good student does, and I went to Barnes & Noble. I bought a few cookbooks and sat down to teach myself how to cook. Unfortunately, cooking is more like calculus than European history - reading alone is not enough. You have to try the problems to learn the language.

And so I tried. I invited Cooper over for dinner. Alison went to her boyfriend's house. I took the day off work. After spending a week at work looking for a recipe. And spending nearly $100 at Whole Foods - on ingredients for sauteed chicken with basil. I still have no idea how that happened.

I spent the day chopping. I called my mom and - when she wasn't home - my dad at work to ask how to chiffonade basil. There was laughter from the family.

In the end, when Cooper walked in and saw me in an apron, he knew I was serious and said, "Maybe I haven't made a big enough deal out of this." But he had - I was nervous enough about meeting my own expectations - I didn't need any pressure from him.

And finally...Cooper did all the cooking. Once I stepped up to the stove - after gulping down two glasses of wine and setting a very beautiful table - I got stage fright. I worried I'd overcook the chicken and it would be dry and stringy. Or I'd undercook it and we'd both end up in the hospital. So I turned to him and said, "Please cook the chicken." And he did. And my cooking career was not particularly advanced that night.

But the spark was enough. In the years since then, I've gotten a lot better - Cooper is the first to tell people so, since all he does these days is grill. He even leaves the marinating to me, and that was always his domain.

I certainly still make a lot of mistakes, and cook a lot of dinners that look prettier than they taste, but I have gained an amazing amount of confidence in my ability to cook a decent meal. And not only to follow a recipe - in the past six months my kitchen creativity has really blossomed.

And hopefully will continue to do so.

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