Saturday, February 7, 2009

If You Eat, You Can Cook

No, really. You CAN. I'm not kidding. You! Over there! STOP LAUGHING!!! ;)

I know there are people reading this (or who WILL read this) who already know how to cook. But I've talked to innumerable people over the last few months who really profess that they don't know how to cook. So if you're one of those people, listen up. You can cook. I promise.

Humans have been cooking for thousands of years. Ever since Grog threw a leftover mastodon rib on the fire to incinerate it, and came out of the cave a few hours later grunting, "Hey, that smells GOOD," we have been cooking. It's surprisingly easy to learn. I am of the firm (and totally unscientific opinion) that it's probably encoded somewhere in our DNA at this point. It's CERTAINLY more instinctive than reading or writing, and yet most of us learn to both read AND write, but a lot of us (at least here in the U.S.) never learn to cook.

But here's the big secret: if you eat - if you've ever eaten anything, ANYTHING AT ALL, that you LIKED - you can cook.

Because 99% of cooking just boils down to knowing what you like. Hate nuts? DON'T COOK WITH THEM. Ta-da! Cooking lesson the first, right there. ;) Even if you aren't familiar with cooking, you probably know of at least a few things that you like or dislike. Fresh tuna. Canned tuna. Tomatoes. Eggplant. Beef. Pork. Tofu. Soy sauce. Pasta. At least one or two of those things elicited either a YUM response or an EW, NO WAY response. That's the first step. Beyond that, think about what you like and WHY you like it. Like Thai food? Why? Because it's spicy? Then you will probably like other spicy food: chili sauce, jalapenos, buffalo wing sauce, etc. Hate spicy food? Then you know you WON'T cook with those ingredients, no matter what the recipe says.

See, here's the thing: the surest way to cook something that tastes good, is to cook what YOU think will taste good. Yeah, ok, we all have individual preferences (when I'm just cooking for myself I add WAY more garlic than I would otherwise because I LOVE IT - no, really: I can eat it RAW), but you'd be amazed to discover how many people like the same things that you do. (But not raw garlic. Unless you're cooking for me. Most other people don't like it so much. Who knew?)

And the only way to figure out what you like? Is to eat. And then cook. Try it. Experiment. If you don't have an ingredient, imagine what that ingredient tastes like (sweet? salty? sour? tangy? creamy?) and see if you have something else in the fridge that is similar. Swap it out and see what happens.

Cooking is a gloriously messy endeavor. No, not in the too-many-pots-and-pans sense (dude, I'd never do it if I had to dirty every pan in the house). It's messy in the sense that you can swap out ingredients, tinker with cooking times and methods, alter amounts, WHATEVER, and it usually stands a reasonably good chance of tasting just fine. Sometimes it'll taste better than other times, but it will really be the rare dish that is totally inedible. (Don't try this with baking. Baking is SERIOUS, people. Mess with the amount of yeast in your bread dough and it WILL NOT BE PRETTY. I'M NOT KIDDING. Follow baking directions to the LETTER. See how many capital letters I used? That's because I'M SERIOUS. ;D)

And let's be honest. In the Western world, cooking is love. Think about coming home from school, or camping out at the kitchen table with your homework, while the smell of dinner cooking permeates the air. I still can't smell onions frying without feeling like a little kid. My whole body relaxes: it's like a drug. I know I'm in a HOME when I smell cooking onions.

And cooking for yourself is LOVING yourself. Cooking for others is loving them too, in ways they will always remember. Seriously. Think about eating cookies at your grandma's house, or tuna noodle casserole (if like me, you had family from the Midwest and South U.S.). Certain holidays wouldn't be holidays without certain dishes. What's Thanksgiving without turkey? For me, Christmas will always mean Shrimp fra Diavolo, even though we only made it once, because it was such an ordeal. (Do not EVER decide to devein 5 pounds of shrimp at once, even when your mom thinks it's a good idea. It takes FOREVER.) I hear folks in England cook goose on Christmas (that's on my list of things to try; I've never had goose and I'm SO CURIOUS).

Food is our connection to our family, our culture, our SELVES. All the way back to Grog in the cave. When I roast a chicken, in some primal way, I'm reaching back through time to touch hands with my grandmother, my great-grandmother, with my great-GREAT-grandmother, all the way back, through generations I don't even remember, parent after parent, all placing a bird over a heat source in order to feed a family.

There are not many things like that left. Not many things that connect us all the way back to ancestors who have long since faded out of time and memory. But placing a foodstuff over a fire, or even slicing it up and eating it raw . . . those things are as embedded in us as the fight-or-flight instinct.

If you can eat, you can cook. And you will never be sorry you learned how.


  1. LOL, it was cooking! It's up now. :D

  2. My Shrimp Fra Diavolo had SEVEN pounds of shrimp, and the memorable thing about that for me was how mad my dad was that we didn't have turkey! Again!!! And I'd say that making Great-grandmother Ball's Chocolate Meringue Pie makes me think of family. AND I've had goose; Mom cooked it one Christmas! So, where were you, Marste????????? Not born yet, unfortunately for you! Ha!

  3. Holy COW, Mom. I thought I was exaggerating with 5 pounds. (It's a good thing for you I didn't realize it was SEVEN!! LOL) Did you like goose? God, I'm SO curious about that. Thank God for Whole Foods Market - they carry it year-round, and I'll try it one of these days! ;)

    I will give you that Chocolate Merigue Pie, though - it's SO good, even if it never DOES set up properly! LOL! (I'm going to do some research and see if I can figure out what that recipe left out!)


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