Learning to cook

Published December 4, 2011 by livinggraciously

“I don’t know how to cook, Mom!” My daughter moaned over the phone. Now, I know that this isn’t strictly true. Over the years I have coached her through a number of dishes that she can now make on command. She has been feeding herself for years.

But her menus are limited to “the stuff Mom talked me through” and “I chop up some veggies and chicken, and…then what? Well, stir fry again, I guess!” It’s compounded by her lack of ingredients in the kitchen, so that the only thing that she can cook is the same things over and over again.

So we talked about how to get past that. I suggested that she figure out 5 or 10 dishes that she really likes and would like to be able to cook, and to then find recipes for those dishes and learn to make them. And I told her that she should always have onions and garlic on hand, because they are the building blocks for a wide variety of dishes. I also reassured her that when I was her age, I didn’t know that much about cooking and that she has plenty of time to learn.

I remember cooking at 25. I was just recently married, and a lot of my dishes consisted of things that started with cream of mushroom soup in a can. I was scarred by the disgrace of having interpreted “fruit salad” as the canned-fruit-and-Cool-Whip version of my childhood, my bowl of pale, diced fruit a sharp contrast to the fresh fruits and veggies at a potluck – a mistake I’ve never made again! I didn’t know you could do anything with vegetables besides boil them, and what was the point of spending all that extra money on fresh when frozen or canned were so much cheaper? But people were definitely starting to do things with food that were different than what I grew up with, and I was interested.

This was the 80s, and the revolution in food was just starting to reach the hinterlands. Our idea of fine dining in my teens was the German place where we ate fondue and wiener schnitzel and thought it was elegant. Vegetables were a sort of garnish that remained untouched on the average diner’s plate. We were just learning of the existence of sushi, and it sounded disgusting.

Much has changed in the years since then.

I was a relatively slow adopter of these new ideas about food, and I was continually intimidated by the food I was eating at other people’s houses. It motivated me, though, and I started trying new things, reading cookbooks, and generally playing with my food. There were definitely disasters along the way, but things slowly improved. I stopped relying on cream of mushroom soup, for one thing.

Erin is starting from a different baseline, one built on the foods she grew up with, so there is no cream of mushroom soup in her cooking vocabulary. I’m confident that she will eventually develop the building blocks of cooking, when she’s genuinely interested enough to make it happen. In the meantime, stir fry isn’t tragic.

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