After my first year of teaching, I had torn my ACL and meniscus, and I was operated on the day after report writing was due. I drove down to Boston after writing reports, arrived in time for my consultation with the surgeon and anesthesiologist, and I was operated on the following morning. During the summer, I hobbled around, living in a five-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, and I decided it was time to learn how to cook. Things had been very decent food-wise at the school in CT. However, I could not stand eating with the people, so I opted to stay in my apartment as often as possible. It was then that I realized that I was not able to consistently cook the few things I thought I could cook: scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and cornbread.
I had so few cookbooks, but I guess I had exactly what I needed because it was a Sheila Luskins cookbook that presumably worked for the basic cook as well as the more party-oriented one. It had been a graduation gift from our long-time family friend, a friend of my dad’s since Kindergarten—Joycelyn. My sister had gotten a Sundays at Moosewood which was much more complicated because it was regional food around the world. And even though none of it is too difficult, when you are a beginner such as I was, I could not imagine eating the food out of Allison’s cookbook every single day, whereas the cookbook that I had would meet my daily and fancy needs.
Not having ever read a cookbook before, I did what I normally did with a nonfiction book: I started at the beginning. I guess it doesn’t make sense to ever start at the beginning of a cookbook unless you are reading the introduction. Usually, one begins with the things one likes, whether that is to be found on page 271 or page 2. I cannot recall if I gravitated toward the front of the book because I love soups or because I felt a sense of propriety and orderliness, but that is where I began. With soups.
That summer, my very first recipe was a carrot soup recipe. I made the stock during the afternoon and I bought and prepped the ingredients while it cooked. I did not realize how expensive cooking would be. This was because I had no ingredients at all other than salt, pepper, sugar, and flour. But I liked that I didn’t have to buy cans of stock because making the stock from scratch was not only dirt cheap (and tasty, I realized later), but also very rewarding. I had to buy all ingredients in the amounts that were sold at the supermarket, and this left me with extras for which I had no use afterward. Because I had no idea how to cook those things into something else. And I had no idea what I might do to make sour cream, carrots, and onions taste good together…except in a carrot soup. Like the one I was making in the correct proportions at the moment—discarding those extra bits that didn’t fit into the recipe as it was written.
After boiling it the right amount, I was to puree it, but I only had a small Cuisinart. I had 8 cups of soup to work through, but eventually, I got it done. (And I learned that putting “more” into the Cuisinart did not make the process go faster. It only splashed out more. So I learned what “maximum capacity” was.) When I finally sat down to eat it, I was amazed. This was not only the best thing I had ever made, but the best soup—carrot soup or otherwise—that I had ever had in my life. I was sold. I would make soups all summer. So that is all I did. Every night, it was soup night. I got to be very good at soup stocks of all types.
I would teach for the next school year, eating food I knew how to make, and I would think of the thing I wanted to learn to cook the next summer: homemade Chinese dumplings and noodles, Asian meat dishes, vegetarian, Indian, breads. Eventually, I started to get the hang of it and I hopped around depending on what I could find at the library. Now, even after knowing my mother-in-law for 15 years, she does not believe me when I say that I did not know how to cook much when I met her son. I only knew how to make soups, dumplings, and a number of meat dishes. Nothing vegetarian. She thinks I must have a history of cooking somewhere in my family. And it seems I should since my mother is a great cook, my dad cooks a lot, and we all love to eat. But I can recall the second summer of teaching, after only one year of cooking, when I was with my girlfriend, Lisa Lee, her cousin Michael, and a number of friends of her husband (to-be). We were in Washington DC and she was cooking for all of us. She asked me to prepare the garlic and I slowly peeled off the skins from each clove. She scoffed at me and asked how it was that I did not know how to prepare garlic by smashing it with a cleaver. The moment that she hit it, I realized that had been the way my parents always prepared garlic and ginger. But I had had so little cooking training that I had almost never done it myself. Still, watching Lisa do this made perfect sense, and I was very comfortable doing that ever since.
Most people don’t believe that I didn’t grow up learning how to cook. I mostly helped with yard work, cleaning after the animals—all outdoor work and errands—as well as my indoor ‘job’ of studying. The few times that I was called upon to help in the kitchen, it was so tedious that I was never interested in doing any more than was asked. I prepared bouquet garni, sliced green onions, washed Romaine lettuce leaves, de-strung beans, squeezed ginger, beat eggs, measured dry ingredients for a marinade, flipped meat, sprayed down flames in the grill. (At least the spraying was exciting because I pretended I was a fireman.) But nothing I made ever led to a finished product. It was boring and messy. My mother was also low-key about keeping me in the kitchen. She had been the only daughter, a middle child in between two brothers. And her mother had relied upon my mother’s help in the kitchen with prepping, cooking, and cleaning. This was not a future she had hoped for me. Even though she has never been averse to teaching me how to cook something, we rarely shared time cooking together. Certainly not enjoyably. And since my mother-in-law is the epitome of all things maternal and female in training, she probably does not believe I could have been raised without a decent training in cooking. If nothing else, to cooking to survive. But my life was not a practical one in this way. And I have had to learn it because my taste demanded it.