A millennial’s reflections on his first year in the kitchen and a culinary call-to-arms
A year ago I got a job and moved out of my childhood home. This understandably necessitated a lot of changes. For example, I now do all of my own ironing, and spend more time wearing only my underwear. I’ll leave you to determine if the two are linked. The biggest change, however, was that I became responsible for one hundred percent of my own meals. There was no dining hall to fall back on, and no parent to cook for me. I was armed with a bunch of hand-me-down kitchen utensils, a smaller-than-average refrigerator and an electric range.
My first two months of cooking were inefficient, to say the least. I over-bought at the grocery store. I used every pot and pan to make the simplest dishes. Some nights, I started cooking at 6 p.m. and didn’t sit down to dinner until 9 p.m. My first chicken piccata nearly caused a fire; it turns out the lack of a range hood was a serious drawback I should have considered when I signed my lease. I got heartily sick of Zataran’s beans and rice and Sloppy Joes.
I began to experiment with real cooking, that is, transforming raw ingredients into a cohesive meal. The trick, I found, was to keep things simple. “As long as you have eggs in the fridge you have dinner,” my dad told me. Quiche was an early conquest. Omelettes soon fell under my purview as well, though I have yet to cook the perfect one. Pasta and accompanying sauces were next. Sometimes these meals came out underdone, or too salty, but with each successful dish, my confidence grew. Cooking went from a chore to an activity I looked forward to, especially on weekends, when I had ample time to prepare food and no commitments early the next morning.
What I came to realize is that cooking, at its base, is a skill, which means that with enough repetition I was capable of mastery. As I continued to cook more, I began to look at cooking as similar to making music; specifically to playing jazz. You spend a lot of time learning fundamentals with jazz: practicing scales and analyzing chords. It’s only after you’ve put in this initial effort that the notes start to give up their secrets to you, and you find that rather than being fixed in patterns and formulas, they are in fact highly versatile. The same goes for recipes.
For a few months, I cooked for four. I wasn’t confident enough to adapt proportions to my own needs. As I began to understand how flavors worked together, and familiarized myself with common kitchen conversions, oh for the metric system’s simplicity, I became liberated. This is when I begin to see cooking as art; more right-brained than left.
This mental exercise helped fill a gap left by my formal education. In the kitchen, I found it easier to take risks than in the office, and I was beholden to no one but my own taste buds. I can’t claim to be a culinary innovator, but I am empowered by a nearly empty refrigerator knowing I can feed myself with whatever ingredients remain.
Twelve months in, I know how to cook. I would not claim that I cook well, but I feed myself using more than Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (though I always keep a box in my apartment). I still order pizza and jump at the chance to have someone take me to dinner. But mostly, I cook. And, you can too. Cooking is a skill, which means you can learn it. And that means, you are a better cook than you think. If you can follow instructions, you can cook. You don’t need cookbooks or formal training; the Internet will tell you how to do everything from chopping an onion to making flan. I Googled recipe website and got 127,000,000 results. Surely there is a recipe for you on one of those sites. The unattractively named but delicious Chicken in a Sack is a personal favorite (I prefer to call it Parchment-wrapped Chicken.) Another favorite is Gnocchi-Tomato-Sausage-Skillet and has only five ingredients. That’s only two more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can do this.
In addition, there are things you are buying that you can make yourself. You don’t even have to cook salad dressing. Just mix and shake. And, pasta sauce takes about forty minutes to cook and costs far less than anything you’ll find in a jar. Save your pennies; spend it on beer, though you can make that yourself too.
There are a lot of recalcitrant cooks among the under-30 set, but I would like to take a moment to single out my male friends. I have seen your refrigerators. They hold beer and takeout. Fix this. Let me address a few deep-seated myths: 1) Cooking is not women’s work. You need only to burn yourself once before you realize it takes balls to cook. There’s no shortage of male role models in the culinary world, and many of them have more tattoos and calluses than you do, soft-handed pencil pusher that you are. 2) Cooking is not lame. You will become self-sufficient. 3) You are capable of doing more than grilling. Charcoal is impractical if you’re cooking for one anyway, and no romantic partner has ever been impressed by a hot dog (no, not that one).
You don’t have to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu. You don’t have to have great knife skills, I don’t. In the beginning, you don’t even have to cook especially healthy. Just make a commitment to cook for yourself one night a week. It will be a chore at first, and you will eat some gross food. The cleanup will be a giant pain in the ass some nights. But you will improve, and maybe even find yourself eating out less, eating better, and spending less money.
You will eat every day until you die, so you might as well have some control over it, and, you know, maybe have some fun too.
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