My first cuisine experience was working the fryer at a Harvey’s in high school.
At home, we ate things that were boiled or broiled. We did meat one way – hard. Our native word for “spice” was “salt.”
But at Harvey’s, there was some rudimentary food preparation. Every Saturday morning, I’d come in shockingly early, peel hundreds of potatoes and pre-fry them in a sizzling industrial cooker.
One of those Saturdays, I was nodding off in front of a batch when a co-worker walked into the back, gave out a little yip and tackled me. I’d been standing there serenely as my hair caught on fire. I had quite a bit of it in those days, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t.
You ever smelt burnt hair mixed with half a bottle of French Formula hairspray? It scars you.
So that was it for me and cooking. I associated it with fire and death.
The longer you go without knowing how to cook, the more defensive you get about it. Eventually, you’re using the stove as a place to store books and feeling the need to tell people about that.
You wouldn’t do that if you filled the bathtub with a hundred litres of boxed wine – not because it’s a terrible idea, but because people would wonder how you showered.
But there is a very specific type of urbanite who is proud of being a stranger in their own kitchen – “I only order out,” they say.
That’s shame talking. People who cannot cook feel a lack in themselves, like those who can’t change a tire. You are insufficiently developed as an adult person.
When the Apocalypse comes, you will not be one of those people who band together with a few sexy others to rebuild the human race. You will be one of the corpses lying on the street in the panoramic opening shot. Because you could not cook.
Now that a preview of the Apocalypse is here, cooking’s having a moment. How do I know? Because I have begun to cook for pleasure, and that is the equivalent of a walrus learning to juggle.
The other day we were in a T&T Supermarket in Markham looking for doubanjiang. Do I know what doubanjiang is? Not really. Did we locate the doubanjiang? We did not. Did that matter? Less than the non-cooking me would have feared.
Speaking to people who can cook as a representative of those who cannot, that’s the real barrier to entry – shopping. There are few feelings more frustrating than standing in the middle of a grocery aisle staring at a list that is entirely crossed out but for one thing – say, gelatin powder.
What is gelatin powder? You don’t know. Where might it be located? No clue. Who can I ask? These days, everyone in a supermarket looks the same.
After 20 minutes of wandering, you decide to go home and boil something.
This is the difference between real-life cooking and TV cooking. TV cooks already have all the stuff they need. The tough part has been done for them.
That is the great lie of the kitchen – that the cooking is hard. Can you read? Do you own a single knife and a pot? Does your home currently have power? You can cook.
It’s the shopping you will have trouble with.
You’re watching Jacques Pépin on YouTube. Jacques, the charming scamp, starts a lot of these home tutorials with “Just grab whatever you have in your fridge and …”
Jacques, I don’t have anything in my fridge. I have a bottle of sriracha that someone left here and 11 beers. If you want to teach people something, teach them that the local drug store may sell food but it’s not where you should buy food. Tell them that cumin makes everything taste better and that ketchup is synonymous with tomato paste.
The panic of cooking isn’t proper sautéing technique. It’s a single ingredient that is unobtainable owing to ignorance. “What is star anise? Do I need it? I do?” That’s what “cooking” feels like to non-cooks and the Irish.
The recent unpleasantness provided the ideal circumstances to overcome this fear. A, there is nowhere to go. B, if you order out every meal, they will need a backhoe to get you out of the house next spring. C, the markets are empty and you don’t feel quite as stupid asking dumb questions. D, the urge to buy useful things in bulk has set upon you like an erotic fever – there is nothing that thrills you more than opening the cupboards and seeing a five-year supply of anchovies.
Over the course of 10 months, with a lot of help from a much better cook, I have overcome my boil-and-broil past. I know the holy trinity (Ina, Melissa, Diana). We are working our way encyclopedically through a Nik Sharma cookbook. I menu plan, like I’m Anthony Bourdain or something. I know people at the market. I own star anise and gelatin powder. I am becoming the first two minutes of a Nancy Meyers movie, which is always set at a fruit stand.
If you have cooked all your life, this will sound ridiculously overblown. But it is an entirely new country to me.
Nothing gives me more satisfaction than reading, but I’m coming around to the idea that cooking is the most fulfilling of the arts. People write about it, read about it, watch it endlessly, copy what they have read and watched (Aristotle’s mimesis) and experience luxuriant sensual pleasure in the appreciation of it.
No one paints about architecture. But cooking is an immersive and comforting joy to anyone who likes food, which is to say everyone.
It also helps if you’re bald.