I didn’t start cooking until I was 30 years old. For some reason, I never cooked with my mom growing up (I guess she wanted me to concentrate on my studies so I wouldn’t end up being a stay-at-home mom…go figure), and all throughout college I lived in dorms or other housing where meals were provided for me. I remember the first time I cut up a chicken breast – it was after I graduated from college, when I lived in an apartment in Brighton, MA (outside of Boston) with three roommates. I was totally grossed out as I handled the raw flesh, trying to cut away the fat and skin. I kept muttering “gross” “yuck” and “what the …?” My roommate Risha looked on, completely amused (and trying not to laugh, I’m sure). Then she said “Oh Linda, you’re so cute.”
A few years later, I lived alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in Chicago. My kitchen, though relatively big, had approximately 1 square foot of counter space. I didn’t have any interest in cooking, and with a full-time job, I was too tired to do anything after work except zone out in front of the t.v. My typical dinner was a piece of salmon I cooked on the George Forman grill, frozen brussel sprouts I steamed in an electronic steamer, and rice that I made in a rice cooker. (Suffice it to say, I’m a slave to my kitchen appliances. This started freshman year when I illegally had a hot pot and toaster oven in my dorm room. Never started any fires but it did make me pretty popular on my floor.) I went out to dinner with friends 2-3 times a week, and every other weekend I went to my parents’ house to get free meals there.
This lack of cooking skills kind of screwed me by the time I joined the Peace Corps. It wasn’t a problem the first year that I lived with a host family, but when I lived alone in an apartment in my 2nd year, it was just me against frying pan (and a pressure cooker I acquired from another PC volunteer. Again with me and the appliances). It was quite a challenge for me to make rice without a rice cooker, cook beans that weren’t from a can, and prepare chicken that wasn’t cut up cleanly and pre-packaged. There were no frozen convenience foods available, plus my freezer was the same temperature as my refrigerator, which wasn’t very cold in the first place. The only thing that saved me from having to cook all my meals was the plethora of cafes in my town. For about $1, I could get laghman (Kazakh noodles), plov (Uzbek fried rice), or a variety of Russian dishes (all with sour cream and dill on top). However, the food in Kazakhstan wasn’t very healthy (I gained 10 lbs. my first year) – it was heavy on meat and all the dishes seemed to have a layer of orange oil floating on top. I decided to cook in my apartment more to change up my diet. Thus my adventures in cooking began.
I went to the open market a few times a week to get produce, grains, meat, and cheese to cook with. I guess I wasn’t too adventurous at first, because starting from that year in Peace Corps and continuing on for the next 5 or so years, I had to follow a recipe exactly. I had a Peace Corps cookbook that became my bible (by the end of my service, it became so beat up with food and water stains that I couldn’t bring it back with me to the U.S. I still regret that now). I was so stringent in following the recipes that if I couldn’t find even one ingredient at the market, I wouldn’t cook the dish. That’s how inexperienced and unknowledgeable I was about cooking.
When I returned from the Peace Corps, my college friends from Boston introduced me to the Food Network. I started watching it a lot (along with Fear Factor and other “reality” shows that ruled the networks when I came back to the U.S. in 2004). I began to gain some knowledge about cooking as I cooked more and more. By the time I moved to Thailand two and a half years later, I had a bit more confidence so that I didn’t have to follow a recipe exactly every time. I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai which taught me about a critical cooking device that I had never used until then and is now always by my side in the kitchen – “the tasting spoon.” You taste your food and add what’s needed, whether it’s salt, sugar, fish sauce, lime, etc. Seriously, before then I never thought to taste the food before sitting down and eating it.
Cooking became an adventure I started to enjoy, and my fellow colleagues enjoyed my dishes as a change-up to their usual Thai fare (which is delicious, but gets monotonous after a while). Sometimes my colleagues in would bring me back ingredients they picked up on their vacations (like vanilla beans from Bali) or in Bangkok so I could drum up a dish. I would scour the markets for familiar ingredients and try to whip something up, whether it was a Thai dish or an American one. I still ate at cafes a lot, but I also had more practice in the kitchen (and sometimes with very little to work with – not many appliances available to me there).
I knew that cooking officially became a hobby for me when I moved next to South Sudan. We had cooks who prepared our meals three times a day. Although it was nice not having to worry about food, I sometimes felt the urge to cook or bake, because it was a good way for me to relieve stress. It was impossible, though, because I didn’t have any ingredients, couldn’t find anything to cook with in the kitchen (which was even more barebones than in Thailand), and didn’t have electricity. I looked forward to going back to the U.S. so I could cook again.
Now cooking is still an adventure for me, but more of a tedious and time-consuming one. I have to prepare meals to accommodate four people in the family, including a vegan-ish husband and a picky preschooler with food allergies (on the other hand, my toddler eats almost everything. Like mother, like daughter). We eat out at restaurants twice a week at most, but for health and money reasons, we have most of our meals at home. And with a husband with zero cooking skills (unless you count pushing buttons on a microwave), all of the cooking falls to me. I still enjoy it, but I would more if I cooked occasionally rather than ALL THE TIME.
At least I’m better off now than before I left for the Peace Corps. I can’t imagine having children with the cooking skills I had back then. I would probably be serving my kids Kraft mac n cheese, Chef Boyardee, or McDonald’s everyday (I still do occasionally). I look forward to the day when my kids are a little bit older (and their palates a little more refined) so I can introduce them to dishes from around the world. But for now I look forward to Mother’s Day, because that is my self-proclaimed no-cook day.