Remembering Your First Time...Learning to Cook

Think about your first time....Cooking something, that is. What memory pops up?

We start somewhere. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all we need is a recipe. When that doesn’t work, we blame ourselves, and too often move further away from the stove.

Learning to cook is like learning to read, or ride a bike.  We have to try stuff, make some truly dreadful, inedible things, and eventually, over time, figure it out.  Everyone has to make plenty of mistakes in the kitchen before it’s time to host a dinner party.

Mark Bittman, a food writer for The New York Times and author of How to Cook Everything: The Basics, said in a recent interview: “People are afraid to drive, also, but everyone eventually gets in a car and drives. No one drives well the first time. And very few people are going to cook well the first time. You need to be willing to make mistakes… You have to say, ‘I have to go through a learning curve on this. Learning curves can be fun. I’m not going to be very good at it – but if I apply myself, after a while I’ll be good at it, and that will be really cool.’ And that’s the attitude you need to have.”

Tamar Adler lowers the bar in her interesting new book, Everlasting Meal, promising that it doesn't contain "professional ways to do anything, because we don't need to be professionals to cook well, any more than we need to be doctors to treat bruises or scrapes: we don't need to shop like chefs or cook like chefs; we need to shop and cook like people learning to cook, like what we are -- people who are hungry.”

As talk of learning to cook filled the air, the Oldways team pulled up our first memories of cooking:

When I was very little, 5 or 6 years old, we lived with my grandmother, a lovely petite French woman who spent most of her time in the kitchen.  Her meals always consisted of multiple courses with layers of flavor - it was a dream childhood for a young foodie.  Too young to learn the complicated techniques of French cooking, I would be sent outside to play.  That wooded yard with a tiny babbling brook running along the edge is where I prepared my first one-pot meals.  Starting with a pailful of brook water for broth, I'd forage through the yard to find my ingredients: pebbles, shredded pieces of dead trees, snails, and the occasional freshwater mussel for the meat; bits of mushroom, leaves and moss for the vegetables; and flower petals for a finishing touch.  While these creations might not have been edible, I was proud to show them off as my earliest lessons in preparing beautiful dishes with local ingredients. 
-Karen Mansur

 

I’m pretty sure my inauguration was scrambled eggs. It must have been very early in the morning, because my parents were still in bed, trying to sleep. Cracking the eggs into a bowl all by myself, finding the butter in the refrigerator, cutting off a bit and melting it in a small frying pan, was all terribly exciting.  I ran up and down the stairs asking my mother questions, which she patiently answered. As I remember this experience I’m surprised at her sang-froid toward a young child standing on tiptoes, experimenting at the stove, unsupervised, a floor below. But I was the last of five kids and she had seen it all by this time.  I proudly ate those eggs, embraced the profoundly empowering fact that I could feed myself, and have been cooking for myself and everyone I know ever since. 
– Georgia Orcutt

 

First cooking memory: I watched my friend’s mother (who was Vietnamese) cook an Asian- style meal that included ground beef and ramen.  I wanted to impress my parents with my cooking skills so I went about making dinner for the family with a similar recipe.  In watching my friend's mother cook dinner I saw that she used a shake of Accent.  I did not know what Accent was, but wanted to emulate her so I did a little shake while I was browning the ground meat and did a few more shakes and a few more once I added in the ramen with one last shake to top it off.  My parents kindly ate the meal and congratulated me on my first “victory.” For dessert, my father began having heart palpitations! Thanks to my heavy-handed shaking of the Accent, he had a severe reaction to the MSG I loaded into our meal.  Lessons learned:  In cooking and in life, a little goes a long way. And you can always add more later, but you can't take it out.

Second cooking memory - Junior high school cooking class.  What they taught us:  How to make a dessert – an igloo! –  out of a frozen waffle, a scoop of ice cream, and mini- marshmallows.  We heated the ingredients under the broiler and then topped them with chocolate syrup.  And we wonder where the art of cooking has taken us and why we have issues with obesity!
– Rachel Greenstein

 

First cooking memory: I was in about third grade and wanted to make my mom a birthday cake. I arranged with a neighbor to make it at her house. It was a cake mix cake, but it was a big deal for me. I thought cooking was mysterious and it turned out if you can read, you can cook. What a great discovery! The cake turned out pretty well and I felt very grown up.

Second cooking memory: When I was in ninth grade my mom had major surgery and I was in charge of all the cooking for three weeks. My biggest memory of this period is learning the importance of planning ahead. You can't get home from after-school extra-curricular activities and thaw meat from the freezer in time for dinner! My parents and sister ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches during the beginning of that period, but I got pretty good at planning meals a few days ahead by the end of it -- a skill that has been essential to enjoying cooking in my adult life. It's a lot less stressful to cook when you know in advance what you're making and you're sure you have all the ingredients.
– Cynthia Harriman

 

My mother owned a large dance studio and taught in the afternoons and evenings.  My brother and I would take turns preparing dinner during the week, when she wasn’t home.  Here’s how it worked:  When we got home from school – this must have started in junior high – there would be a note waiting for us.  For instance, Mom would write:  At 5pm, put the chicken in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  At 5:25pm, boil the green beans for 5 minutes until tender, etc.  While this wasn’t “cooking” an entire meal ourselves, it helped us feel comfortable in the kitchen and learn about timing/preparing multiple items at once.

Under closer supervision – my mom was an excellent cook and baker – I learned all the basics of proper measurement, how to follow a recipe (Mom followed recipes to the letter/me, not so much), chopping techniques, and even how to make buttermilk if you didn’t have any in the house.  We won’t talk about the time I used salt instead of sugar in a chocolate cake.
– Kyle Potvin

 

In a cabin in Austin, Texas!  My first memory is making pancakes with my dad on weekend mornings. We'd make different shapes - letters of my siblings' names, Mickey Mouse ears. Fond memories.  
– Janice Bissex

 

I was a bit of a late bloomer in the kitchen so my first memory of actually cooking something for other people was in middle school. I remember making blueberry pancakes for my parents--they were horrible, burnt on the outside and raw in the middle--but good parents that they are, they ate them with a smile on their face and gently suggested I cook them on a lower heat. I haven't looked back since…(and now I'm much better at heat regulation!) – Mallory Cushman

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