What my mother believed about cooking is that if you worked hard and prospered, someone else would do it for you.
– Nora Ephron
I was hungry.
It was nearing 6 on a recent Tuesday evening. Having just walked in the door from work, I stood in my narrow kitchen, pacing back and forth from my empty cupboards to my too-spacious refrigerator, searching for something to eat. I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and my stomach was growling something fierce.
I eyed the shelves of condiments chilling inside: ketchup; whipped cream; soy sauce; spicy mustard; grape jelly; a half-empty plastic pitcher of cranberry juice; the nearly empty gallon of one-percent milk way past its expiration date; three sticks of butter; an opened package of bacon.
My cupboards didn’t prove much more promising: a few near-empty boxes of cereal; a lonely box of macaroni and cheese; a couple cans of cream of mushroom soup; a brownie mix; olive oil; garlic salt and other sorted spices I can’t recall purchasing or ever using.
The picture was bleak enough, for sure. But rather than agonize over my predicament any longer, I settled on a recently cooked piece of corn-on-the-cob, which I slathered with butter and salt, and quickly devoured on my back porch.
I received corn skewers as a housewarming gift years ago, but never opened them until this night. It was exciting – like Christmas morning – finally putting to use a kitchen accessory that sat untouched for so long.
That was dinner. No main course. No additional side dishes. Not even a beverage. Merely an ear of corn.
But I topped dinner the next night, when I ate a chocolate brownie and a glass of milk. (Now that’s what I call a balanced meal: sugar, carbs and calcium.)
You may laugh at my food situation. I certainly do, especially because this Tuesday evening occurrence wasn’t anything new. Since moving into my home more than six year ago, I still haven’t mastered the art of cooking. I can warm up foods, reheat leftovers, nuke takeout with the best of ‘em. But when it comes to preparing a meal from scratch – a meal that doesn’t include a frozen TV dinner, noodles and a pack of powdered cheese – I’m lost.
“Just cook something,” people say. “It’s not that hard.”
“It is that hard,” I say, “because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
Years ago a friend sent me a copy of The Four Ingredient Cookbook by Linda Coffee and Emily Cale. (Clearly a gentle suggestion to ditch the pre-packaged, frozen meals that sustain me.)
The hardbound book boasts more than 700 recipes that contain just four ingredients. It’s targeted, as an inside page suggests, at “busy people everywhere!” I may be busy, but that’s no excuse for not being able to prepare a meal. I think the idea for this book is a compilation of recipes to make when kitchen cupboards are bare, when only four ingredients on hand can make a meal and when someone’s “can do” spirit kicks into gear.
A quick flip through the book, however, showed me I don’t have 90 percent of the ingredients in these recipes. That depressed me.
Here’s one that looks good: chicken noodle casserole. The four ingredients: egg noodles, cream of mushroom soup, chicken legs and paprika. Looks good, but I don’t have those the majority of those four ingredients. The only chicken legs I ever purchased were presented in a cardboard bucket labeled KFC. And paprika? I don’t know how it tastes, so why would I even consider adding it to a recipe?
Family and friends know the plight I face when it comes to food. Some have said my grocery lists are often more humorous than my attempted meals. Before shopping, I make the feeble attempt at drafting a list, something my mom is so very good at doing. Making a list ensures you buy the right items. Making a list ensures you don’t buy too much. Making a list ensures you don’t get distracted by all the snack and dessert items on sale, the new products waiting to be plucked from store shelves.
When I put pen to paper, I am clueless what to write, so I jot down cereal, yogurt, milk, cookies, Wheat Thins, canned fruit, canned vegetables, TV dinners, soup. So many times, I’m tempted just to simply scrawl “FOOD” in large letters, a printed exclamation of my dietary frustrations.
I’ve learned, thanks to the help of friends, that my problem starts not at the grocery store, but at home. Grocery lists, I’ve come to find out, are born out of things called recipes. When one has recipes, one has their grocery list.
That’s amazing! It’s so simple! It makes such perfect sense.
But I can’t cook. I never learned, never bothered to learn. It just didn’t interest me. An hour or two before dinner, as my mom prepared the evening meal in our kitchen, my younger sister would hang around, offer to help, ask questions. She inquired about poaching methods, oven temperatures, seasonings, browning techniques.
My nose would be stuck in a book, or I’d be working on my Macintosh. My only thoughts pre-dinner were post-dinner: dessert.
I don’t recall taking any cooking or home-ec classes in high school. I took a Science of Foods class in college, but squeaked out of there with a D+. It was an omen of things to come.
Looking at my past relationships also shows a varied and enviable life of meals. My first boyfriend introduced me to flavored yogurt and granola bars. He was an I.T. guru and graphic designer who preferred working overnights and ordering take-out. We feasted on simple foods at home, somewhat nicer meals when dining out. As such, I wasn’t encouraged or required to learn my way around the kitchen.
My second boyfriend was an outstanding chef and even took culinary classes at a local college. The first meal he ever prepared me included delectable vegetables with olive oil and garlic, along with tender chicken breast. His meals were truly homemade and lovingly created, each bite more savory than the previous. He introduced me to couscous and polenta, fine wine and even lattes.
I coveted his food so much that – and I swear on my Macintosh at this story’s truth – I even ate his leftovers after they had accidentally fell to the ground. I packed up the tender vegetables for lunch at my weekend job. While walking across the parking lot from the office where our microwave sat to my desk in another office, I dropped the open Tupperware of warmed vegetables to the Astroturf below my feet. It wasn’t more than a few seconds that the vegetables sat on the ground before I scooped them up and prayed no one was looking.
On Sunday evenings, as we lounged in front of the television and geared up for another work week, we often brought home fried chicken dinners from Bag ‘N Save, a locally owned grocery store in Omaha. There’s nothing flashy about Bag ‘N Save, but their fried chicken truly takes the title of Best Fried Chicken in Omaha.
I ate well during our relationship and have the photos to prove it, both of his meals and my chubby face, as I gained close to 15 pounds. But relationships ended as they often do, and I quickly returned to an eternally empty kitchen filled with more snack foods than core ingredients for dinner.
Shortly after we began dating, my current boyfriend revealed his kitchen skills. He’s a master at the basics that stick to your ribs and taste even better the next day: lasagna, chicken enchiladas, corn casserole, green bean casserole. And don’t even get me started on his hamburgers, prepared with just the right sprinkle of brown sugar and charred to the perfect texture on our grill. He introduced me to Watermelons at the Anchor Inn and the peculiar and often exhilarating results of mixing vodka with Red Bull.
And, bless his heart, he knows I’m clueless in the kitchen and even more so at the grocery store. When I announce I’m off to the store, he reminds me, “Buy food. Don’t just buy cookies and cake mixes.”
God love him. So long as I pick up the proper ingredients, he prepares us a fantastic meal.
We have an agreement in our home: if he does the cooking, I do the cleaning. It’s an ideal balance. I can’t cook but rather enjoy tidying up and putting away clean dishes. So long as my belly is full (and I have no part in preparing the meal), I’m happy.
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