I’ve spoken before about one way that food grounds me. But I’ve always been something of a foodie (is it any surprise that I live in Brooklyn, now that I think of it?); when I was young, and there was little to do, my friend Lisa and I would sometimes bake things. Usually we were at Lisa’s house – she was just across the street, and more often than not our brothers had already laid claim to my house. Lisa’s mother was also really indulgent about mess and patient with us making mistakes; if we cooked at my house, my Mom was usually hovering in the doorway watching us nervously, but Lisa’s mother usually just checked the recipe really quick, then asked us if we remembered how to use the oven, if we knew how to work the fire extinguisher, and then would retreat to another room entirely or sometimes even leave the house, warning us to call if we needed anything. And except for one very ill-fated attempt to make her parents breakfast in bed (I completely misunderstood how to work a coffee maker and created a messy, but wonderful-smelling, flood) we usually did okay. There were a couple of occasions where we overcooked whatever cookies we’d thought up and things started smoking on the cookie sheet, which sent Lisa and I charging around the house waving towels to dispell the smoke “so no one would know”; her mother must have noticed something, but kindly held her tongue.
But that gave me a sense of ease in a kitchen, which has been an absolute blessing. If there’s some food I’m curious about trying, and I don’t have the means to buy it elsewhere, I just shrug and look for a recipe. Even if it’s supposed to be something complicated and fiddly – the recipe tells you what to do, right? So what’s the problem? And even if you make a mistake, unless you completely ruin it, the food will still be edible, so just eat it like you were going to – you’ll be fed, and you’ll have learned what not to do.
This kind of shrug and well-why-not attitude has let me teach myself how to cook a lot of kinds of cuisine – Cajun, Italian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, French, Irish, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern. I can make my own ice cream, make cocoa from scratch, bake fancy cakes for tea or big gloppy desserts, I DIY my own lattes, and friends say that my take on jambalaya is better than some they’ve had in a couple of the city’s restaurants. I’m prone to roasting an entire chicken just for the sake of having the carcass left over so I can make stock.
This translates really well into entertaining, fortunately. For a while I would have monthly buffet-style dinner parties at my apartment – really casual things where people could just show up whenever and there would be something to nibble. Everyone always turned up at the same time anyway so they could get their hands on all the food. Even so they were still sometimes impressed by how much there was of it – one day I had a whole assortment of tapas, and my friend Patrick just sort of looked at it all, then turned to me and said, “so you just….sort of whipped all of this up?” I nodded. Patrick had been promising me a home-cooked meal of his own at that point, and after another look at my tapas table he turned back to me and announced he was rescinding that offer. The spread got even bigger when I co-hosted with my friend Richard – we used to have viewing parties for The X-Files season premieres, and I would unofficially move in with him for the weekend and we would have a two-day orgy of planning, shopping, chopping, baking, stirring, blanching, poaching, stewing, and whatever we needed to get everything ready. Once we did an entire ten-course Thai meal from scratch; there were so many platters on the table that we had to serve people picnic-style on the floor. One of our friends gaped when he walked in and saw it all, then turned to us and said, “guys, you do know that most people just do beer and pizza, right?”
Cooking for myself is almost more difficult, because my instinct is so much more suited to Going Big – huge pots of soup, huge batches of casserole, entire chickens, six-pound pork butts. Which you can still do as a single eater, but then you’re stuck eating the same thing for a week and a half and you end up wanting to scream uncontrollably by day six. On the other hand, it does lend well to brown-bagging lunch to work. In fact, sometimes I’ll spend a whole weekend cooking a huge assortment of dishes I can keep in the fridge ready to be dipped into for packing in the morning. Especially in summer – one of the Moosewood cookbooks I have is nothing but an assortment of hearty salads and soups, perfect for keeping chilled in tubs in the fridge and ready to be doled into containers to go to work; I wake up, pick a couple, pack and go. And in the summer, being able to open the fridge and eat without heating up the kitchen is a boon.
My roommates are usually indulgent when I get like this – for a day or so the coffee table is piled with cookbooks while I Plan My Attack, and then I spend a day and a half in the kitchen and they instinctively keep clear; and then the fridge is jammed full of tubs and bowls and boxes of Things, and space is at a premium. Fortunately my current roommate, Paul, has a singing gig in one of the city’s church choirs and is usually out of the house for the whole day every Sunday. Which clears the way for me to do a whole pan-Asian spread – a soy-poached whole chicken, stir-fried bok choy, salads of shredded carrot with either seaweed or tuna (or maybe both), matcha cupcakes, and I may even make my own onigiri and keep them in the freezer ready to go.
…Yeah, I know. Some people just do beer and pizza.