How I Learned to Cook


I can’t say I have ever felt comfortable in the kitchen. Since I was a kid, I definitely enjoyed sneaking in (when no one was looking or watching) for a cookie or soda I should not have been having. The kitchen, especially in the prep stages before a meal, felt like a space I should not be. I didn’t know what was happening exactly or what to do, so if I were to be there, I would only be in the way.


Fast forward to senior year of high school, and I had barely even cracked an egg. I knew how to boil water, but turning on the stove or the oven made me nervous. That was my mom’s job, so I kept my hands off. By this time, I also knew that I would need to learn to cook to some extent if I wanted to survive in college. My family could not be there for my entire life to cook for me, and I needed to be able to take care of myself.


I told myself I would learn before I went to college. I told myself I would start feeding myself a bit more, but I didn’t. I could make grilled cheese and boil water for pasta. I had conquered the perfect way to make toast. But that was the extent of my skill. I didn’t even really need to hold a knife! I was honestly afraid to handle any sharp cutlery, until I was forced to confront it by working in the kitchen at the camp I work at over the summer, right before my freshman year at Kenyon.


It was an important experience for both my cooking skills and my ability to work with a team of strangers on something I did not feel comfortable doing. Usually, I am enthusiastic and strong, faking confidence when I don’t feel in control or certain over a situation. The entire session was uncharted territory, and I had to admit defeat from day one if I wanted to make it work. I admitted to the head chef I was clueless, and she made sure I was comfortable and helpful in every task she gave me. It was mostly a lot of cutting fruits and vegetables, sorting through food to give to groups throughout camp for their cookouts (meaning they cooked their own meals outdoors), and washing lots of dishes. I learned to mop and dance to Disney songs, and how to cut a cantaloupe. A week I was originally dreading turned into a prized experience that I do not think can be replaced.


I acquired small additions to my skill set over the years, such as grilling quesadillas on the stove top or making pancakes. Some I learned at camp by asking my supervisors to teach what they knew during cookouts. Some I learned from my mom or my friends when they were cooking. I wanted to learn, but often others who knew what they were doing stepped in before I could be taught in order to get things done efficiently, so I waited even longer to move from clueless to novice.


It is not to say that I was not frustrated. I wanted to learn and to know how to help so badly, but I knew that I had no understanding of cooking, when things were done and whether produce was good or bad, so I stepped back to allow others to show me or do it themselves. I often felt defeated and like I was unprepared to be an adult with such a meager skill set to my name.


Maybe I can owe it to a new can-do attitude, or a new confidence in myself since overcoming new challenges I never knew I would face over the last year, but I started to fight harder to learn to cook. I wanted to help, and I would not — could not, really — stand for people doing things for me anymore. Just like I teach my girls at camp, we know ourselves better than anyone, and it’s our job to let ourselves have the chances we want; to ask for help, and to gain the knowledge we desire. So I did what I could. I watched other people cooking and asked them questions about what they were doing. I took on tasks I could not do so I could learn from the experience what I needed to be doing. Instead of hiding in making the fire or cutting the vegetables, I volunteered to cook tofu or taco meat so I knew what it took.


That’s not to say I did it alone. I definitely was supervised at all times by people who knew what they were doing. If the food fed people other than me especially, I was constantly asking “Am I doing this right?” or “Is this done?” to those around me. It may be a weakness of mine to seek the approval of others, but when it comes to cooking meat properly, I think it is better safe than sorry.


The most hands-on experience I got was over spring break this year. I went to Florida with five of my friends to stay in a beach house, be beach bums and generally relax and chill out together. Dream come true, right? It was lovely, but we were also cooking for ourselves. There were six of us, and we had meal plans, but it was long days and we all wanted things to happen and someone needed to be the cook if we wanted to eat. What better way to learn than by doing it?


It was nerve-wracking and scary. I worried constantly that I would do something wrong, or that the food would not taste good or “right” by my friends’ standards. But they trusted me, and so they let me do it. Also, it meant they go to chill out a little bit longer in the evening, so it’s not like they put up much of an argument. I cooked taco meat, made lots of pasta, constructed a lasagna, and made a lot of pancakes! I got over my aversion and slight fear of touching raw meat when I helped my friend Emily make meatballs. I also had a blast. I was tired and grumpy when I was standing in front of the stove or oven, waiting for food to be done with hunger gnawing at my patience as much as those around me. But I felt accomplished in something I had never managed to conquer. I still get excited when I think about it.


Now I’m not going to say I am an expert now. That would be hasty. But I am definitely coming closer to overcoming any qualms around being in the kitchen. It is almost fun to cook. Exhausting, I am learning, but also enjoyable. It makes me value the effort my family members have been putting into feeding me for so long. It also makes me understand why people enjoy cooking and find it as an escape or a hobby rather than a burden. I can’t wait to learn more. I still have a bit of an aversion to cracking eggs, but I suppose that will be the next task I hope to conquer. I understand cooking is not for everyone, but if I have learned anything, it’s that you can’t knock it until you try it.


Image credits: Jenna Wendler, Morgan Harden