Learning to cook like learning anything is hardly ever linear. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t interested in food—as more than just sustenance. My first culinary experiment was when I was about four, and if you’re a long-time reader you already know the story of the Oreos and the Amercian cheese so you can skip the next paragraph.
In the morning when my parents were still asleep I would head into the kitchen to make myself a little morning snack. This is my first original recipe: get four Oreo cookies, open them and lay them on the counter. Take a piece of American cheese, and fold it then break it into four squares. Lay each of the four squares on an Oreo cookie half. Put the cookies back together and consume.
Someone was always cooking at our house. My dad was the King of Breakfast and weekends were his domain. He also manned the charcoal grill until I took over in my teens; it turned out he hated grilling, but I loved it. The two of us were the early risers in the house, so I’d sit in the kitchen with him and watch him make French toast or corn eggs. During the week I’d sit in the kitchen watching whoever was there making dinner.
Other than my Oreo concoction and later adapting Bisquick recipes to bake in my E-Z-Bake oven I don’t remember learning to cook per se; I just remember cooking. When my mom went back to school and then started working she would leave us instructions to make dinner, and we figured it out. Eventually, we sorted out who would do what, and I generally did the entree cooking because I liked it. I started reading my mom’s cookbooks, Gourmet Magazines and soon began buying cookbooks of my own. Though I wasn’t a vegetarian, my first cookbook was The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas.
I learned to cook at the same time I was failing to learn to play the piano. I practiced the former and avoided the latter. By cooking a lot, I got better and the better I got the more I enjoyed it. Do I have a particular talent? I have no idea. I know I have a strong interest and good training. The discipline and order I lack in most if my life I bring to the kitchen. I am dedicated to mise en place, I clean as I go and I plan and execute with almost military precision. Best of all, I continue to learn.
In the mystery of nature vs. nurture, I have no idea where a passion for food and cooking falls. Why does one person eat to survive while another relishes every bite? Do we learn to love food or are we born loving it? Why do I hate green peppers and love artichokes? Is it all just random, or do I love to cook because the people I loved cooked for me, so now I cook for the people I love? There must be more to it than that because it matters what I cook and how it tastes, it’s more than the cooking. It is the experience of both the preparation and the consumption of the meal.
Learning to cook/cooking has been the single constant in my life. I’ve had a few careers, assorted jobs, and yet I always return to food. I have cooked my way through life and will continue to do so as long as I am able. It pleases me that I’ve passed this along to my daughter. Is this hard-wired into her DNA or a result of a life with me? We’ll never know, so I’ll gladly take credit. Since she first made herself a scrambled egg at age eight, I have proudly coached and watched her learning to cook. If she has children I hope she’ll pass this same love along to them.