Growing up, I ate a lot of takeout. So much that the staff at my father’s favorite soul food spot knows my entire immediate family by name. My father is not much of a cook (his specialties are tuna salad, salmon cakes and several variations of toast) and my mother always psyched herself out when it came to cooking. Every meal she makes is a huge production that requires hours of prep and all of her energy, so much so that I often thought that she dreaded cooking. Just thinking about it seemed to make her exhausted.
My maternal grandmother was an amazing cook, and although my mother learned some of her skills through observation, she was never really given any formal lessons. It probably had a lot to do with how my grandparents had nine children and operated their own barber/beauty shop for quite some time. (My grandfather was a barber and my grandmother was a beautician. Because no one can out-cute them.) Somehow, with that busy schedule, my grandmother used to easily make delicious meals from scratch, taking very few shortcuts, but she never seemed to have the time or patience to give her children tutorials. From what I can tell, it made cooking seem like something mysterious and consuming. If you weren’t breaking your back to make a meal, you weren’t really cooking at all.
Mama taught herself how to cook, using a combination of tricks she’d picked up from her own mother and recipes from her ever-growing collection of cookbooks. When it came time for me to learn, my mother became determined to give me opportunities to try my hand at making my own meals, but my training was still sporadic and uneven.
By the time I got to high school, my mother would challenge me to randomly make dinner for the family. I was given my very own cookbooks, full of easy recipes and I would try my best to make it work, shuffling back and forth from the kitchen to my parents’ room to ask my mother what cooking phrases like “brown the meat” or “al dente” meant.
No matter how many dinners I made, we still ate out more often than not. My mother and I were both incredibly busy. She’s a teacher and still stays late to revise lesson plans and grade papers. I was an over-achieving high school student with a part-time job, an internship, a regular rotation of extracurricular activities and somehow, a social life. In a pinch, my retired father could get creative with his limited cooking skills, but for the most part, it was just easier for us to eat out.
That all had to change when I went to college. I moved off-campus during my junior year, renting a three-bedroom row house with five of my classmates. Our sleeping arrangements were creative to say the least, and living there was much cheaper than staying in a dorm. Still, I quickly realized just how much money I was throwing away by eating out so often. Not to mention that I had begun to outgrow my clothes and didn’t have money to replace them when I went up a size.
I decided to try to really learn how to cook. I knew many of the basics, thanks to my parents, but I had trouble doing things like cooking chicken all the way through, for example.
After months of undercooked meat and semi-crunchy rice, I was fed up with myself. I wasn’t a miserable cook, just an inexperienced one without much confidence. The easy things, like breakfast foods, stir-frys and tacos, I could already do. But I second-guessed myself so much that I could never seem to cook meat until it was done-done. The threat of salmonella poisoning was ever-present.
Frustrated but determined, I remembered my mother’s favorite kitchen-related adage, “If you can read, you can cook.” I rustled up some recipes from the Internet, scouring the Food Network’s recipe archive for anything labeled “easy.” I tested out my new recipes on my most willing and kind guinea pig: my boyfriend. He sampled meat to make sure it was cooked through, lavishly praised my successes and gave honest critiques about my misfires.
YouTube taught me how to chop difficult produce like onions, bell peppers and pineapples. Google helped me to find easy pantry substitutions for new spices I didn’t own, as well as recipes that involved the ingredients I already had on hand.
Slowly, but surely, I began to see the fun in cooking. I added blogs like The Kitchn to my RSS feed, bookmarked recipes from Buzzfeed and Pinterest and started to invest in new tools to make cooking easier. Using a potato peeler for the first time was an experience. Adding new spices to my arsenal made me feel weirdly accomplished, an adult achievement level unlocked.
Eventually, the time came for me to test my skills. In an effort to save cash and vacation time, I decided to stay in D.C. for Thanksgiving. The idea of a Thanksgiving without turkey, collard greens, mac & cheese and sweet potatoes just made me sad. Rather than spend the holiday in my apartment, eating cereal and binge-watching Netflix, I opted to do something about it. My best friend was staying in town, too, so I invited him over and spent a few days researching doable holiday recipes.
By the end, I’d cooked a gorgeous turkey breast, some wonderfully spicy collards, mac & cheese, cornbread and sweet potatoes. The food was great, my friend loved it and I felt accomplished. Since then, I haven’t been afraid of cooking or messing something up. Instead, I’ve been excited to try new things and flex my skills.
I save money, I eat more nourishing meals and, most of all, I prove to myself that cooking doesn’t have to be something laborious and grueling. It can be fun.