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The Test of Thyme: College Cooking

            “Well you see,” I told my mother. “The next day, your creation is gone! I’d rather buy a shirt I could wear for years.”
            She rolled her soft brown eyes and explained that cooking isn’t about the meal itself, it is about the way you and others react to the flavor. This debate was fizzling out once again.
            Unfortunately, the conversation resurfaced because I’ve simply reached a new low. A point of motivation. I ate Ray ‘n Mike’s two consecutive nights last week. I looked past the bare hands preparing the meals in that narrow sweaty kitchen. I wanted a hearty dinner. Perhaps it’s time to swallow my pride, conquer the supermarket and start up the oven.
I figure the first step is to stock up my kitchen: a grimey, beer stained, filled to the brim with everything you don’t need, workspace. Before I leave, I assess the refrigerator to date. Eggs, yogurt, frozen chicken, milk that expired six weeks ago, and generously donated frozen leftovers from mom. I grab my wallet with a shutter.
              A diverse group of shoppers surrounds me, but I slowly realize a solid difference that sets me apart. While they look at their lists occasionally to keep themselves on track, I study mine like a map. I look enough like a tourist; a map, camera strap and fanny pack would fit right in with my curious countenance.
             After sleeping off my supermarket trauma, attempt one commences. My challenge, presented by a cookbook, “The Comfort Table,” by Katie Lee Joel, is to concoct hash browns. From scratch! That morning, I discover the first added bonus of cooking: aroma. The smell of simmering onion wraps around me like a warm embrace and sparks forgotten memories from childhood. I lean in and take a deep breath. My eyes burn and I have to laugh at myself. With every bite, I taste pride.

         That day I realized that my body isn’t accustomed to eating three meals. After a hand-made tuna melt in the afternoon, I felt I was done for the day. Too often students substitute a meal with an on-the-go coffee or snack and therefore, lack adequate nutrition. My fast-paced, unmethodical college lifestyle was charring my mission. The difficulties of cooking are so clearly magnified in college. We could use a class to show us how to cook around our spontaneous schedules.
          My brother, Keith, never had a problem with college cooking. In fact, that’s where he started progressing with his own culinary style. I used to chuckle when he stood over the stove in his blue bathrobe, but he is capitalizing on his skill today. He had the last laugh and I had Ray ‘n Mike’s buffalo chicken.
            In 2008, his sophomore year at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Keith developed a concept for a college-cooking tutorial he named Cooking Cum Laude and submitted it to a contest held by The Food Network. Keith recognized the strangled culinary creativity that young students like me experience in a dorm. He lost the contest, but held on to the ambition and eventually prevailed.

            Today, Cooking Cum Laude has become “The College Chef.” It airs once monthly for the fans of the university sit-com “Greek” on the ABC Family website as a webisode. The first features “Greek” actor, Aaron Hill among his suite-mates conquering college hunger with beer battered franks. The show has a focus on “limited cooking facilities, limited access to finer ingredients and situations students can relate to,” Keith said. Educational, but comical; it inspired me to channel my inner college chef.

            The second day of my culinary trial flows a bit easier. I find myself trusting more of my own decisions and using my recipes to validate them.
            At this point I feel a little frightened. All of my excuses for why cooking wasn’t right for me are dissolving like butter in a Teflon pan. I am spending more time with friends, eating more protein, pocketing the $6 I would usually shell out for a deli sandwich, and maneuvering the kitchen with ease. While lying in bed assessing my fear of inevitable enjoyment in this act I once despised, I have an epiphany. My last challenge would not be to follow a complicated recipe. In fact, I wouldn’t use a recipe at all.
            Once again, I find myself standing still on the linoleum floor, staring blindly at the meat section. I reach for my cell phone and type speed dial two. Whenever I mention “grocery store” in the first sentence of a conversation with mom, she lets out a frank laugh as if to say, “I accept you as a microwave chef.” I ask my mother to tell me a good lean meat, something more complex than chicken. I buy a pack of three lean-cut pork chops along with light soy sauce and apricot jam for a glaze I’ve often enjoyed at home.

With minor instructions prior to cooking and not a pen to paper, I trusted my instincts and made three beautiful pork chops that night. My housemates laughed in amusement as I yelled out “I’m a chef!” over and over again.
            Mom was right. The pork chops were palatable, but flavor is not all that cooking is about. Three days ago I expected scars, fires, and sour stomachs, but instead I experienced creativity, pride, and nostalgia. I like to cook, but Ray ‘N Mikes will see me again.
            “Maybe you don’t experiment with food and maybe your weekly meals come out of the freezer,” Keith said. “But no matter how foreign a kitchen is to you, you can’t deny that on a few occasions, you’ve been proud of something you’ve whipped up.”
             And I have.

Leigh is a senior print journalism major and sociology minor at Quinnipiac University. She enjoys traveling, writing, photography, watching Sex and the City, going out on the town (of Hamden) and laughing with, and at her housemates. In the Summer of 2009, she interned in Los Angeles at Genlux Magazine and Red Light Public Relations. She studied in Barcelona in the Spring of 2010 where she learned the true importance of life from the Catalan people. She is a member of Alpha Chi Omega and was a recruitment counselor during formal sorority recruitment in February. It has been rumored that due to her consistent honesty, she has no secrets of her own. Leigh loves her university and is having the time of her life as a senior. She has only had a few minor freak-outs about her upcoming graduation to date.
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