Monday, May 29, 2006

Cooking. memory. (college).

In college I lived with a group of girls who were from Hong Kong, which meant that, like me, they liked to eat. They cared about food. It mattered. School vacations meant that they would bring back cans of baked beans, which we ate on toast, or various snacks and cookies, teas, and the latest pop albums and movies. And we cooked. All the time.

Which is not to say we didn't eat in the school cafeteria. Dry slices of roast turkey and instant mashed potatoes drowing in bland gravy. Wrap of tortillas encasing limp salads and tired chicken in ersatz caesar dressing. Decent sandwiches, overcooked pasta. But we tried to cook in the communal kitchen on our floor. Once a week a bus went to the mall, to the supermarket, to Walmart or Kmart. We would load up with groceries, come back, try to fit everything into the tiny refrigerator. Buy cans of soup, instant noodles, juice, loading up on things that happened to be on sale that week. We were college students on tight budgets, trying to get the most out of our money. I had never had a supermarket club card before, and it was impressive how much you could save by shopping carefully. It is amazing what you can do with little storage space, few utensils, and the most basic of kitchens.

It was a lesson in minimalism, in making do. Simplicity ruled. Sometimes dinner was cream of mushroom soup, jazzed up with chopped onions and mushrooms, sometimes chicken, sauteed in butter before the soup was stirred in, everything poured over freshly cooked rice. Sort of like a fake risotto. We had a rice cooker, a microwave, a toaster oven, and an electric kettle for hot water (for tea and instant noodles). A 20-lb bag of rice leaned against the refrigerator in the hallway. For weeks one spring my roomate and I bought premade cookie dough, baked cookies in the toaster oven, and had hot cookies and milk almost every night. Aside from toasted cheese sandwiches I roasted poussins, toasted marshmallows, baked biscuits in that little toaster oven with the broken handle. I made borsch in a saucepan, chopping the beets instead of grating or processing them (as I would at home). Every week, we bought eggs, scallions, bacon or ham, frozen peas, which would be become fried rice or savory golden frittatas. Spaghetti with jarred pasta sauce. We marinated chicken wings in ziploc bags, broiled them in the communal kitchen oven. Often we had curry, bought sauce mix that came in blocks that dissolved as you cooked it. Another frequent dish was pork chops, briefly marinated in soy sauce and wine, pan-fried, and sliced over rice. My last year I had a car, which meant trips to the bigger supermarket some fifteen minutes away, or over to the Chinese grocery store that had frozen dumplings and noodles you couldn't find at the supermarket.

I can't remember what else we cooked, but what mattered is that we were eating real food. Or at least, trying to. Those dinners taught me that it didn't take a lot of effort, or require a battery of equipment, or even a decent kitchen to make a good meal to share with your friends. It was worth the effort to eat well, and to do it together. What mattered was that we weren't eating dorm food, and that we were together.

There is a memory of that time that I will carry with me forever. It is late at night, and I can't sleep, and I'm hungry. I scare the crap out of my roomate by leaping out of bed (she thought I had fallen asleep) and declaring that I was starving. The pizza place is no longer delivering; it's after 1 am. No worries. We have bacon, scallions, eggs, and cold leftover rice. Within minutes, certainly in less time than it would take to order pizza, we are sitting on the floor in our shoebox of a room, hunched over steaming bowls of fried rice. I don't think a bowl of fried rice has ever tasted that good, or ever will again, because it is not just about the food but about that brief moment in time that is long past and will never happen again.

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