When I left home for graduate school and my first apartment, I could barely boil water. But I rapidly recognized that I couldn’t afford to go out to eat very often and I didn’t want to subsist on products from the supermarket’s freezer case. My solution? Learn to cook! Living alone let me experiment and hone my kitchen skills without anyone else around to say, “I thought we were going to eat before 8 p.m.” or “Did you really mean it to turn out this consistency?” And I found that I liked cooking—both the process itself and the tasty results.
My second year of grad school, I shared an apartment with a classmate who also liked to cook. As I recall, she and I each took responsibility for a week’s meals at a time, a pleasant and pragmatic way to divide the labor. My roommate also was a much less recipe-bound cook than I was. I tended to treat a recipe’s measurements and instructions more like a formula in chemistry class than as an edible art form. Mary Lynn taught me to taste as I went and to be guided by my preferences and experiences, rather than treating a recipe as rules to be followed scrupulously. I also learned that cooking made an effective respite from major research papers and projects that had a way of dragging on and on. With cooking, you made a meal, you enjoyed it (or didn’t), you cleaned up the dishes and the kitchen, and then you moved on to the next day’s meals. Instant gratification isn’t quite the right concept since something like baking a pie wasn’t really instant, but it was definitely a speedier source of satisfaction than completing a term paper or cramming for an exam.
Ever since then, cooking has been one of my life’s great sources of joy. When everything is clicking in the kitchen, I find myself in the classic state of “flow,” where I’m living in the moment, appreciating the sensory qualities of my endeavor, and feeling oblivious to the passage of time. And, needless to say, when the results are delicious and I can share them with family and friends, that’s the cherry on the sundae—to use a food-related metaphor.
While I’ve loosened up as a cook since my initial efforts in graduate school, I still start with a fair bit of planning. Most weeks, my pattern has been to peruse food magazines, saved recipes, and other resources during breakfast on Thursday in order to assemble the following week’s menu, usually with three or four new recipes as well as some time-proven favorites. That menu, in turn, makes it a simple matter to generate a shopping list for all the necessary ingredients. It’s been a source of comfort for me to know that I have a plan and all the raw materials to produce a week’s worth of healthy and satisfying meals.
So I’m feeling a little off my stride now that my grocery list needs to reflect things that I’m hoping to find on the supermarket shelf rather than what I’ll actually be able to bring home from the store. That change in circumstance is inspiring me to treat my shopping expeditions more as a quest for useful raw materials rather than a to-do list for the recipes I already have in mind. In the spirit of gamification, I’m trying to visualize myself as a contestant in one of those cooking shows where celebrity chefs are given a bag of random ingredients and then challenged to turn them into a new dish on the fly. My recipe search may need to follow rather than precede my trip to the grocery as I arrive back home to let cooking sites help me figure out what to do with country pork ribs, a head of broccoli, and the bag of onions already in my cupboard. Fortunately, now that I have years of cooking experience under my belt (or, should I say, under my chef’s apron), I have a reasonable sense of what ingredients would go well together and the techniques to assemble them to advantage. It won’t work every time, but I’m still aspiring to keep cooking fun and creative, as well as a source of pleasure in trying times—and I hope that you can do the same.