How I Came
A Proud Non-Cook
history of a picky grouchy non-cook, in which I go from unconscious non-cook to uncomfortably self-conscious and guilty non-cook to proud, liberated, hyper-conscious non-cook
Through my whole twenties I was an unrelenting cracker eater and unabashed non-cook. An unconscious non-cook. Really, I never gave cooking or not cooking one single thought. The cracker part isn’t really that essential – sometimes I ate Chinese takeout or black bean burritos from a Mexican place – but since I believe that crackers should be a food group, and since they come cooked, for me they epitomize a staple of bypassing the kitchen. The absence of non-cook attitude and awareness I had in the cracker eating days of my youth might have continued, who knows? But it didn’t. In fact, only the cracker eating remains where many other things about those days ended or are gone, like being single, smoking cigarettes, rearranging my furniture in the middle of the night, the brown suede mini skirt I used to wear with cowboy boots, the parties in my tiny apartment featuring almost completely no food whatsoever except the pretzel sticks someone thought to bring along, the occasional stay out all night episodes, the serious doubts about ever having any children.
These things did not persist. What happened instead was that I met my future beloved husband.
I had been living in a cute top floor railroad apartment in Manhattan’s West Village with a box of crackers in the cupboard, a trusty melita drip coffee maker on the counter, and a bottle of champagne in the fridge, which was other wise more or less empty except for the vegetable crisper, where I kept my socks. It was a very small apartment. Space was at a premium, and I wasn’t going to fritter a whole drawer on a bag of carrots or a head of cauliflower. Using the vegetable crisper for a sock drawer is a common innovation, I think, for single non-cook style girls in tight urban spaces.
THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE
In a parallel universe, my future beloved husband, who is a sculptor, was living in Union City, New Jersey in a big industrial building where he had his studio. He wasn’t supposed to be living in the studio because it was illegal, but he was living there nonetheless, as artists sometimes take it upon themselves to do, especially if they are young, unattached, and not so rich. The kitchen situation was that there was no kitchen, but he had rigged up a counter space out of an old door up on sawhorses. He had an impregnable looking juicer, a “Super Ninja” gas canister fueled hot plate, and a knarly beast of a toaster oven that looked like it had done time in the back room at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop for some bad offence, like starting a fire. Next to the counter space he had installed the most enormous, old, brown, vaguely sinister refrigerator I’d ever seen. If you opened the freezer, the eyes of frozen fish stared out at you: future fish stock. His only sink was a big industrial slop sink located out the door, in the corridor (the bathroom was down the way from there). In this set-up, my beloved fixed himself miso soup for breakfast, crazy fruit/vegetable concoctions from his juicer, and delicious stir-fry. He even sprouted his own rice, though he had to rig up a pulley system on a column in the space so the mice couldn’t get to the rice before he did. So you see in spite of the cliché, he was hardly a starving artist. Even taken less than literally, this would imply some degree of lack of food. Yet there was no lack of food, none at all.
In a nutshell: I was the person with the will to drink coffee; my future beloved husband was the person with the will to cook. There are actually a lot of things my beloved husband and I do not have in common, including some of our tastes in things (like a taste for fish soup for breakfast, pickled pigs feet, and eel of any kind) but none of them really matter. Having things in common, I think, is overemphasized.
We fell in love, we de-camped from our city living situations, and we moved to the small town where I grew up at the tip of Eastern Long Island. We married. We had children! First one boy, then another.
They were beautiful babies. The first one had a shock of black hair and shiny dark eyes. The second one had a big open face and dimples. They drank their breast milk and their formula. And then, after a while, each in turn, they started to actually eat. Here is one of the things I have experienced about being a mother: The kids don’t care about your inner relationship to cooking. They especially don’t care at dinnertime, when they get hungry and start to rattle their non-free-range cages, needing fuel for future free-range activity. Later, after dinnertime, when they are older they might care about your inner relationship to cooking if it has gone toward shaping them, especially if they think it has gone toward messing them up. Perpetuate cooking related weirdness at your peril!
The non-cook, not cooking thing started to bug me. It started to seem selfish, stubborn, impractical, and uncool. I started to compare myself to my beloved husband, who can do things like make sushi. Finally, I began to wish to rise from my schulmpity schulp of ineptitude in the kitchen for the sake of my little boys’ dinner. The sympathetic and hopeful among you might ask, Why can’t beloved husband be the house cook, and then everyone will be happy? Thank you for your concern and optimism. I think that’s a really good thought. I like it immensely. But what about my self respect? What about the respect of my children? And more to the practical point, what about this: sometimes people are hungry and my beloved husband Daddy of our boys is not at home.
What happened when all of this really started to sink in is that I decided to try to learn how to cook. I did this by launching a project I called No More Not Cooking, where I asked friends who are good cooks to give me informal cooking lessons. You can read a little more about NMNC here.I figured the friends would keep me from slinking away from the kitchen in guilty yet sly self-erasure the way a cookbook never would. The cookbook, for example, would never check up on me. Hey Evan how’s it turning out, are you basting? The cookbook would never answer desperate questions at weird times over the telephone about how long to boil the lentils. The cookbook would never ask how the cooking thing was going. The friends, on the other hand, would keep me honest. The friends would help me keep the cooking mitts on. They would also, it turned out, give me great windows into the greatness of themselves, and confirm my feeling that friendship is among our highest capacities as human beings. If you'd like, you can read accounts of those cooking lessons here.
Over the course of my No More Not Cooking project, hilarity and soul searching occurred. What did not occur was my wonderful development into a graceful, inspired cook. This is not a story of heart-warming transformation. It’s more like a story of something sticking to the bottom of the pan. I discovered that the whole non-cook thing was no accident. It wasn’t just a habit I never quite shook from my roaring twenties. I didn’t uncover hidden talent or newfound joy. I definitely did not get a sense of accomplishment, in the general sense, even if I did eventually nail the chicken potpie.
Actually, I turned out to be a picky grouchy non-cook of deeply held beliefs, chief among them that one’s cooking identity is one’s own business. Ok, the children are hungry, and you are the Mama, so you’d better give them something to eat, but that doesn’t mean you have to suddenly be all lovey dovey with the kitchen equipment. The non-cook’s attitude is the non-cook’s prerogative. Ok, your child’s pre-school is having a holiday song recital and all the parents are supposed to sign up to bring a dish. Don’t sign up. Or if you can’t bear to be that anti-social, sign up to bring the non-denominational snowflake napkins. You may not be off the hook, but you can still preserve your identity as a non-cook. Ok, you had to nod and be super polite at a gathering while the main topic of conversation was the merits and demerits of the soy bean, but that has nothing to do with who you are when you are sitting alone at the kitchen table reading a book. No, not a cookbook, a regular book with a story or some interesting non-fiction not about food.
STILL EATING CRACKERS
I am still eating those crackers, and by the box. This is something that connects me to my mini skirt wearing, no-food party throwing, relentlessly smoking, past self. Some things that give continuity are only humble. Long live the continuity of the cracker! But as you can tell, along the line I entered a state of consciousness – nay, hyper-consciousness, on the non-cook front.
Click here to read a little more about what happened in my head when I realized I was never going to be a cook.