Communicating Food

(This is really long, almost 2,000 words. But I have to make up for not posting more often by posting long posts, right?)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do with my life recently, what I want to be when I “grow up”. My usual defense for not having anything remotely approaching a career at this point in my life is usually to blame my father. Last time I asked, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grows up. And yet, it seems to me that there must be something out there that would satisfy me as fully as when I was in school. It’s true, the thought of going back to school to study history doesn’t hold much appeal to me right now, but I really liked how it felt. I really liked how purposeful it was, how I was excited to wake up every day and keep digging through readings and writing papers. (Okay, no university student is every excited to wake up, but once I was awake and had dragged my ass out of bed and had gotten some coffee in me, then I was excited.)

For the past five years, I haven’t been overly excited. Coffee was cool for a while. This hotel thing is definitely not my cup of tea but it gives me a chance to interact with a rotating cast of characters and it’s certainly clear that I like interacting with people from the safe side of a counter. The one thing that I’ve enjoyed most about all of my past jobs has been communicating information to people, whether it be why a textbook isn’t on the shelf, where a particular coffee comes from, or why Balch Creek is my favorite spot in Portland and why you absolutely must take the five minute bus ride from the hotel to see it.

And then there’s this other passion of mine: food. Even before some people thought I was too young to start cooking (ahem, Mom), I wanted to. My Nana, thankfully, had a more liberal approach to involving children in cooking and I cherished every chance I had to make fresh pasta with her, or sprinkle something into a soup, or lick the cake batter off the mixer.

My first solo forays into cooking weren’t entirely successful. When I was maybe seven or eight, my Nana sent me home with a package of pudding mix. We had made some earlier that day and I figured that having done it once with a steady and experienced guiding hand that I could do it on my own. I burnt the pudding to the bottom of the pot. I’m pretty sure that my mother still has pictures of it. She was not happy. She was also not happy when I served her coffee for Mother’s Day that year or the next. I watched her make coffee every morning. How hard could it be? It turns out there’s a difference between Instant Coffee and Drip Coffee. And Instant Coffee brewed through a drip coffee maker doesn’t taste quite right.

Fast forward a decade or so.

I was getting ready to head off to McGill, where, though I would be living in a dorm, I would only have a meal plan five days a week. This was something that I never mentioned to my mother, who still wouldn’t let me into the kitchen, but it was something that I had discussed with my Grandmother (my dad’s mom; Nana was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, the Italian side). As a graduation gift, she gave me Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and told me very mater-of-factly, “If you can read, you can cook.” I was skeptical but it was either take her at her word or live off mac and cheese and pizza two days out of the week. Most university students would eat three meals a day of that and not think another thing about it. I, however, had always been really curious about this cooking thing. And now I wouldn’t have to worry about Mom shooing me from the kitchen.

I started out ever so slowly and probably didn’t really eat too much better on the weekends than mac and cheese and pizza because I don’t have any strong food memories from my first year of university. After that first year, though, I was completely on my own as far as food went because I was living off campus. I was probably still eating a lot of processed and packaged foods, but I was making use of the cookbook. I had given up on trying to keep the dust jacket on the book–a good sign that it was getting used often enough according to my Grandmother.

Initially, I was afraid to cook meat for myself. I had a brain full of imprinted fears of undercooked pork or chicken. Salmonella. E. coli. Food poisoning. Meat was scary! This isn’t to say that I was becoming a vegetarian (that came later). I just wasn’t cooking meat for myself. Eventually, though, I was starting to feel comfortable with the basics of cooking. And I kept looking through the cookbook when I probably should have been studying. And those meat recipes sounded good. Finally, I took the chance and bought some chicken and tried one of the recipes. I think it was some kind of ginger soy sauce chicken recipe. It became one of my standard go-to’s proven by how mangled and stained the page is.

It was a revelation.

The chicken was moist and flavorful and just SO GOOD.

My mother is not a bad cook. I used to think that she maybe wasn’t a great cook, particularly if you were to judge her skills at cooking chicken. It was always dry and fairly flavorless aside from whatever gravy or shake n’ bake or glaze from a pouch might be on it. As I’ve become a more accomplished cook myself and as I’ve learned more about the history of modern American food, I’ve come to realize that she is of a generation that was always scared of meat, always told to cook it till it was good and dead lest it poison you. (If it was so dangerous, why were we eating it?)

Now that meat wasn’t scary, I was anxious to start cooking more for myself. Though I have owned How to Cook Everything for a decade, I have not yet cooked every recipe in it. However, I know that I have looked at and possibly read every recipe. It wasn’t always as easy as macaroni and cheese, but the more I cooked, the easier it became. And the more fun it became, too. Cooking dinner became a study break and so it was a good excuse to find something intricate and involved that might take two or three hours to cook, eat, and clean up after. In fact, now that I think about it, dinner was probably the only thing I took as seriously every day as my classes. Going out on a Friday and drinking with my friends was always fun, but so was staying home and baking a pie.

How to Cook Everything is the most important book that anyone has ever given to me. It’s no longer the only cookbook in my library and it’s not even one that I open very often anymore (I often don’t look at a recipe anymore), but it was my first cookbook and the cookbook that taught me almost everything I needed to know to start cooking for myself. It was the cookbook that gave me the confidence to tackle things like lasagne made completely from scratch and pie crusts and, yes, even beef bourguignon (I had heard of Julia Child but she was just that strange old lady who had a show on PBS that I sometimes saw bits of).

In the decade since I started cooking for myself, mac and cheese has never left my pantry (I’ve moved on, though, from Kraft Dinner with neon yellow cheese to Annie’s Organic Shells and White Cheddar) but lots of other things have entered it: yeast, pimentón, sardines, anchovies, capers, lentils, Swiss chard. None of these were things that were in my pantry when I was growing up. My mother was busy. Both she and my step-father worked full-time. She put a hot meal on the table every night thanks to Lipton noodles or rice microwaved with powdered sauce, Shake n’ Bake, and frozen vegetables. She always tried to include a salad, too. That was usually mostly fresh but we usually drowned it with ranch or creamy Italian dressing. It’s not that they were unbalanced or blatantly unhealthy meals–they were meals based on the meals that my mother probably ate growing up: meat, grain/potato, vegetable.

But times change and my food habits have changed as I’ve grown and learned more. My meals these days are almost always vegetarian. Aside from the mac and cheese, there are virtually no processed or pre-cooked foods in my pantry. I go grocery shopping a few times a week to keep my stocks fresh. I do my best to buy local, organic and in season.

So how does this come full circle back to what I want to be when I grow up?

Every time I bake something, people tell me that I should open a bakery. But then I’d be back to working crazy hours like I was in coffee, and I hated that. Every time I cook something, people tell me I should open my own restaurant. But part of what I love about cooking is getting to sit down and enjoy it with friends around a table, and I couldn’t do that if I were running a restaurant.

But I like talking to people. I like communicating information. I like teaching people things. I like writing. And I definitely like food. There’s probably no clear path here. It’s not as if I can become a home ec teacher (are there any of those left?). The idea of becoming a nutritionist has occurred to me but I’ve yet to explore it very deeply. Plus, the idea of reducing food to its component nutrients drains all the romance from cooking. I wonder if Michael Pollan is hiring for apprenticeships.

If I could design an ideal job, it would probably be something like what I imagine a home economics class might have been like (I know not of such things because they were dropped from my middle school and high school long before I got there). I want to give people what How to Cook Everything gave to me: basic tools to be able to cook for themselves, not to be afraid of food, and to enjoy cooking.

And, sometimes, if you ask it nicely, the Universe gives you a chance to do a test run.

I’ve been bugging the Man for ages about letting me teach him how to cook. He’s finally given in. I realize that this experience will be very, very different from anything I might encounter were I to be granted my ideal job, but it’s a place to start. I’ve also convinced him that we should start a blog to document how things go. He’s just started rehearsals for a show, and so is way too busy to worry about cooking for the next six weeks or so. When we finally do get around to starting, I’ll post the link here, though.

Who knows if this really is what I want to do when I grow up but if I think about the things that make me happy and that I’m most passionate about, it seems as good an idea as any.