As I’m planning a little trip to the California Bay area I am reflecting on how I learned to cook. I am delighted by people’s stories, and I am delighted by food, and the combination of the two even more so, and for me there was “a moment”.
I grew up without knowing much about food or cooking. My mother was not very domestic and didn’t cook much, she was more the “I can use power tools” type. My father introduced me to a few key things–seafood, Thai and cured meats, but didn’t actually impart the skills of making them.
Noone in my lineage was particularly into cooking, actually.
So, you know, I could microwave a potato, scramble an egg and I knew how to order a pizza.
I’d cooked in restaurants, terribly, mixing up giant vats of over-peppered stuffies in a hotel kitchen, frying eggs poorly for tourists in Puerto Rico, frothing lattes and shmearing bagels.
I ate stuff.
But I didn’t really GET it.
When I was 20 I left Rhode Island for Bishop, CA via a long, meandering road trip with multiple rock-climbing detours. We ate a lot of sardines, diner food and carrot sticks. A few months into this adventure I ended up in San Francisco visiting my sister, and we went out to lunch in Little Italy. I’m quite sure I was broke, and I’m sure the place we went was not the fanciest– I remember it as unassuming and the kind of place that would offer lunch specials that two scrappy young Rhode Islanders would like.
So I had a salad, and it was, like, LEAFY. This was 1998 maybe, before frisee was a household word.
The dressing was not fluorescent orange.
And then there was spaghetti. I thought I’d had spaghetti before. I thought I “knew” spaghetti, but this was al dente, covered in olive oil, like real olive oil, Calamata olives and diced tomatoes.
Some dude came over and grated Parmesan cheese onto the whole thing.
I coulda died.
Oh, and I had a glass of wine. In a real wine glass, not a Ball jar. Wine that enhanced the food, a concept I certainly had not grasped before.
At that moment something clicked in my head. Cooking is not hard. Cooking is, at its best, taking great ingredients, combining them with a light touch, and trying not to fuck them up.
It was like I unlocked this big, clunky, mysterious box and out spilled bitter, salty, sweet, chewy, lemony and oily, and I ate it.
I see people slogging through their cooking, following other peoples’ recipes to the letter, worrying themselves sick over whether it’s perfect enough, or healthy enough, or “clean” enough.
(Don’t worry, it is.)
And I just want to impart a bit of the joy, the meditation, the creativity, the rebellion I feel when I cook. Yes, occasionally cooking feels like a chore. But mostly it is a constant companion in my life’s struggle.
I now cook every single day of my life. I cook with my eyes closed, with both hands behind my back. I cook with my eyes, my nose, my ears, my mouth. I cook with my instincts. I cook things I’ve grown or foraged or bartered. I cook without recipes, mostly. I cook well, mostly. I can cook for 100 without fear. I cook and then I actually eat it. I cook for family, friends, lovers, dogs.
And I still make that simple Calamata olive spaghetti that changed it all.