Saturday, May 02, 2009

How Cooking Changed My Life


I love cooking, but if you knew me while growing up, you wouldn't have guessed that I would ever learn how to use a can opener. Mom gave me simple jobs in the kitchen and I would turn them into disasters, largely because I existed mentally in another world. In order to cook, one has to be present, focused and attentive. Daydreamers don't function well in food preparation. But if you gave me an hour, I could toss a great salad back then. My mother was no dummy, she needed all the help she could get and that became my role in getting dinner together as long as she planned ahead for me. Later, she got me into creating marinated salads with cauliflower, broccoli, grape tomatoes, olives and a bottle of italian dressing. I guess I was able manage because I could cut stuff forever and not have to heat, bake or boil anything.

And then I went off to college intending to be a pharmacist, which I later discovered involves chemistry which involves lab exercises which basically are recipes in disguise. A recipe, like the ones that Grandma kept in a little box, are basically chemistry experiments involving food. It wasn't long before I switched from drugs to food science and developed a bit more in being able to keep my mind from drifting off into the sixth dimension. Again, I never intended to cook. I was more interested in how gluten functions in bread, how proteins are structured and crystallization of sugars. None of that helped me in the common process of making dinner. That was actually harder than trying to pass Food Engineering 465.

I lived with a friend who helped me with my inability to learn basic theories of feeding myself and others. We started with menu planning, grocery shopping within a budget, and execution of cooking. We then started to take turns each week planning and cooking. Since neither of us had a lot of money, I couldn't afford to waste food because I couldn't concentrate and ended up burning the mac and cheese. And despite our limited resources, we practiced hospitality and I really stretched in learning how to be generous despite my circumstances. Especially when the friend I invited from the dorm brought along eight other friends almost at last minute.

All through this time, I never enjoyed cooking. It demanded a whole different orientation for me in living in the present. For many months, it didn't look like I was going to make it. Especially when I only 10 bucks in my checking account to feed my friend and me both for the week, and my fingernails were separating from their beds because I lacked enough nutritional protein, and I had lost 15 pounds because I couldn't afford gas to put in my car and walked to and from campus which involved climbing some mighty big inclines amoung the Palouse hills. Never enough carbs. I was savvy to know that I was operating under some serious calorie deficiencies. I had to look at this cooking thing from a standpoint of survival and I had to operate on a more intelligent level. I needed more money and more ideas on how to stretch it. So I took a second job and learned about deals from the grocery sales ads in the local paper. And I made friends with the produce clerk who told me about the shelf of goods priced on Monday to go quickly every week.

By the end of the year, my parents came for a visit and were amazed at my transformation. To this day, I don't know what exactly they saw that was such a big deal, but they saw it right away. When they drove up to the house, I was mowing the lawn. I already made some lunch for them, including a potato salad from scratch and had coffee waiting in the coffee pot. My mom mentioned the potato salad a few months before she died a few years ago, that it was the best she ever had. I vaguely remember it, and that I had thrown it together from veggies that were about to go bad and that I had no recipe to work from and had to improvise. But what I remember from that day is that I had survived, I made it through my first year out of the dorms alive. I was able to feed myself, and others, too. Even though lunch was a hit, like several meals I prepared for others, I still didn't enjoy cooking.

That came later, as I made the connection between showing love to others by making food for them as well as the creative process--putting my daydreaming self to good use. I became a research assistant for a big famous garlic processor and developed recipes to showcase their products as ingredients for other food processors. I cooked for my mom and her friends who all knew me as the daydreamer teenager who couldn't boil water.

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