When I lived on South Street over the summer, one of my then-roommates and I called it “the summer of growing up.” We both had jobs and internships, paid rent on our own, started relationships, and learned how to cook, all in a few months that flew by faster than we ever imagined they could.
Of all those seemingly grown-up things we did, though, learning how to cook seemed to be the biggest accomplishment. It was completely new to both of us, and our survival pretty much depended on it-ordering takeout every day, on our budgets, wasn’t an option. So we learned how to make something for dinner without burning the apartment down.
Figuring that out starts with the most basic things-boiling water for pasta and microwaving a jar of sauce, scrambling up some tofu for breakfast, popping a piece of chicken with salt and pepper and rosemary on it into the oven. Even that required a few text messages home to my dad to figure out the right temperature for the oven, how long to cook it, and exactly how much pink in the middle of my chicken would be still too pink to eat. It’s all about baby steps.
Even the baby steps, though, are not without their pitfalls. I was on the phone with my mom while cooking one night and, never one to pay all that much attention to what I was doing to begin with, in the time it took to tell my mom about my day and turn my back for half a minute, the entire apartment was full of smoke. Despite my desperate attempts to open up all the windows and doors, the fire alarm went off anyway, and the whole episode ended with my standing on a chair trying to reach the “off” button on the alarm with a broom. I ended up whacking the whole thing down to floor by accident, but hey, at least it stopped beeping, right?
Soon enough, little mistakes like burning dinner or setting off the fire alarm or accidentally cutting my finger while chopping potatoes (that was bound to happen, given how totally uncoordinated I am) were fewer and further between.
We graduated from making pasta to more complex things-quinoa and tempeh masterpieces for my vegetarian roommate, and my grandma’s Cuban recipes for me. I learned to take more risks by looking up recipes online and making spur-of-the-moment decisions on what to make, despite never having tried that dish before. Sometimes those experiments didn’t turn out so great, but other times we were unabashedly proud of ourselves. “Look what I made!” we’d excitedly say to each other. “You should totally try some. It’s actually good.”
The actually there was key. We were so surprised at our success, but also at how happy and accomplished we felt when a new recipe went right.
I wish I had learned to cook much sooner than this summer, because every new recipe is an adventure. Most of the time I have no idea how something is going to turn out, so navigating through the ingredients and measurements is like figuring out directions with a map. Then into the oven or pan it goes, and I have to sit there and wait until I figure out where this adventure has led me. Everything may look like it’s going in the right direction, but I won’t really know if I’ve gone totally off track until the timer goes off and I can finally taste it.
Cooking helps break up the monotony of the days. At least once a day, if I’ve planned my meals out well, I have something I can look forward to doing-and eating. It’s a social activity, too, whether I’m eating dinner with a friend or making it with him or her. Either way, our conversations inevitably circle around to what we could have done differently with the recipe and what tweaks to make next time, and it helps me remember that there’s always something new to try.
Making a meal is easy if all you’re doing is microwaving things, but it’s also easier than you’d think to be a bit more adventurous. There’s no need to be afraid of turning on the oven or firing up the stove-as long as you pay attention, it’s pretty difficult to make a fatal mistake on a simple recipe. And aside from making you feel a bit more grown up, cooking yourself a fresh, actually good-tasting dinner is a small triumph that you can feel proud about.