Learning to Cook

“I didn’t think life was about learning to cook,” says one of my characters in a recent novel.

“That’s exactly what life is about,” retorts another character.

I didn’t think life was about learning to cook either, and so I was never in the kitchen with my mother often enough to learn the tools of her trade – housewifery. Which meant that, when I married for the first time, I didn’t know squat about housewifery and all that went with it. And since it was still only 1963 or so, I had only Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick Van Dyck show (OMG, she wore pants) or one of Ayn Rand’s heroines for liberated role models. I rarely knew which way to turn. I can’t say that I chose housewifery with an open heart – as a matter of fact, I would be well into my 30’s when my mother’s housecleaning genes kicked in – but I realized fairly soon that if I wanted good things to eat, I’d have to learn to cook. And if I wanted holiday desserts the likes of which only my mother and grandmother knew how to produce, I would have to learn to bake, too.

My first set of cookbooks (being a book person and in love with encyclopedias, this was a no-brainer) was Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery Complete Set of 12 Hardcover Volumes . I recommend them to anyone, although they come under the heading of “vintage” now. I don’t, however, recommend trying to cook your way through them alphabetically, although you do learn some lessons. Such as don’t try fixing abalone when (a) you live in the Midwest and (b) you’ve never heard of it before.

But there were plenty of other easy, delicious recipes I discovered, once I decided I didn’t have to make everything. Country Captain (Indian chicken dish with golden raisins), Sweet and Sour Meatballs (a Christmas Eve favorite for years), and Chili Mac, a hot filling stove-top meal almost completely out of cans for cold winter nights. When my second husband and I bought the farm, a good thing in this instance, friends gave me a copy of The New York Times Cookbook, which, with its loose ragged cover still has room on my kitchen bookshelf. It has my mother’s recipe for “Never-Fail Piecrust” hand written on an inside cover and I still pull it out to remind myself of what the hell is included in Herbed Meatloaf.

The co-op movement hit during our farm years, and along with it, vegetarianism. I didn’t go vegetarian, but I did buy The Vegetarian Epicure – Savory Cheese and Onion Pie and Spinach Lasagna with Tomato Wine Sauce.

Then I got another divorce, a college degree, and started running around with bikers and the Grateful Dead. Go figure. It took about ten years before I returned to the kitchen on a regular basis. I still had my old favorite cookbooks that I’d dragged around the country, but now not only did I have a computer, I had Food TV and Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa. Brownies, Garden Pasta Salad, Macaroni and Cheese, the best chip dip in the world, Pear Clafouti!

So what is the point of doing an entire essay on cooking, if I’m only going to list favorite cookbooks and recipes? Because, as it turns out, as my alternate self in the novel had discovered, life is indeed about learning to cook. On a broader scale, life is about learning to live, learning a useful skill that will help to mark you as an adult. You may continue to drift through life, you may still refuse to grow up in some pertinent way or other, but learning to cook – learning to sew, to build a bookcase, to fix a carburetor, to balance a checkbook - learning to do some one thing well, that is learning to live. Because paying attention to the instructions, keeping a careful eye on the process, slowly learning where and when to improvise – those skills carry over into everything else that you do. Once you learn to cook – or sew or build or fix – you can learn to do almost anything. You can get a graduate degree or join the Peace Corps or write a novel. You can even feel free not to cook.

I cook very seldom these days. I’m working on my third novel. There are four of us in the house now, and I have found that I require space – counter space and head space – to really cook up something good. As my daughter says, these days my favorite food is something cold and congealed in front of the computer. But that’s okay. I don’t have a husband, my daughter is a professional cook, and nobody expects me to serve them meals. Except at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Then the cookbooks come back out and pies get made and old favorites get to the table one way or another. Come December 26th, I have a refrigerator full of leftovers and I’m free once more to go my own way.

But learning to cook was one of those things that taught me about life, about the minutiae that must be taken into consideration, about knowing when to follow the instructions and when to deviate from them, about patience, about finishing the job.

So when someone says that life isn’t about these small domesticities, I say that’s exactly what life is about. Life is definitely about learning to cook.