Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How it all began. (cooking). (part 1).

One of my earliest memories is of being in the kitchen. Standing on a stepladder at the kitchen sink, washing mushrooms. Carefully rubbing away all the dirt under running water, until each mushroom was gleaming white, perfect. I cannot have been more than four years old. That is where it all began. Washing vegetables was the first thing I learned to do in the kitchen. Then came learning how to measure the ingredients, waiting for my mother's hands to crack the eggs so I could stir packets of mix together into a batter. Next came permission to use the oven. Cakes, brownies, and cookies were the first things I learned how to make. Waiting for the timer to go off, the kitchen filling with the smell of baking, impatiently waiting as things cooled on wire racks. I can't remember which came next, being allowed to use knives or the stove. As I got older I did more prep work for my mother, washing things, chopping vegetables, ("the scallions need to be sliced finer than that," "I said STRIPS, not CHUNKS, pay attention next time!"), cooking rice in the rice machine.

In her book Home Cooking, or maybe it is the sequel More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin says something about how in order to learn how to cook, you had to either have the good fortune to have been born Chinese or be able to afford help. I was lucky to be born Chinese. It comes with a) the ability to eat almost anything, no matter how disgusting, and b) the habit of thinking about (or better yet, plannning) your next meal even before you've finished eating the previous one.

Cooking is a pleasure. There are times when it is a burden, when I stagger home late after work and wind up eating a bowl of cereal and drinking a beer, or having a banana and a bowl of ice cream. It happens more often than I would like to admit. But most of the time, I will cook for myself, the foods of my childhood or the American foods I never ate as a child (macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes). I learned to cook from my parents. It started with doing the prep work, chopping things and putting them in bowls before my mom came downstairs to cook, then one dish at dinner, which would be critiqued ("Not so much soy sauce next time." "The garlic is a little burned." "I think you should have taken the chicken out of the oven five minutes sooner."). As I got older I sometimes made the entire meal, at least three or four dishes, using several pots, two or three burners (on some occasions, all four), and the oven all at the same time. Then more criticism ("You need to work on the timing." "The vegetables have gone cold."). And I learned, dish by dish. Getting better at cooking was its own reward.

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