Summers in Houston were spent lounging in Grandma’s pool and learning to cook in her kitchen. Living overseas, Grandma and Grandpa’s ranch style house in Houston was home base, where we’d go for vacation and family time before heading home to Hong Kong or Moscow. I learned to love cooking and tried new foods with Grandma, who also fed me my first raw oyster. I learned how to cook from television.
I am technically an Elder Millennial, which is a terribly unflattering way to say I’m older than most millennials but not old enough to be Gen X. We’re also called Generation Y (as in Gen Y Bother) or Xennials. We are the people without a true label or identity, and we don’t get the credit we deserve for being the kids who watched 9/11 unfold live in the classroom and graduated from college into the Great Recession. We are also the generation of Food Network.
Once we had obsessively memorized all the lines in every episode of Friends, a lot of us landed on Food Network for the soothing clips of stirring and the light banter. I didn’t get to watch regular TV until I was in college, since I went to high school in Russia where I had access to BBC and whatever random episodes of sitcoms my grandparents taped and mailed over to us. Before that, it was summers of Nick at Nite and Grandpa’s baseball games. Once my roommates helped me catch up on Sex and the City, I started to flip channels and saw a woman making biscuits. My mom is a great cook and I learned a lot from her, but there are things she never made, and biscuits were one of those things. I just assumed they weren’t something home cooks ever produced themselves, but a treat served at barbeque restaurants. From then on I tuned in to Food Network several times a week to see what was cooking.
My first time being the sole cook in the kitchen was in high school when I lived with just my dad, and I tried to contribute to our meals by shopping for groceries and cooking dinners a few times a week. I liked to eat, and Dad wasn’t an enthusiastic cook apart from his specialty: a doctored can of Beanie Weenie. I had eaten a lot of great food already by age sixteen, having lived all over the world, but I didn’t know how to make any of it. I made a lot of mistakes, but the one that I still have nightmares about was the night I attempted to make fried rice. I didn’t know you were supposed to use day old rice so I made a pot of rice right before frying it. It wouldn’t crisp the way I wanted, so I just kept heating and stirring until it was a hideous paste. It was revolting, but Dad was nice about it. I tried a lot of meals that didn’t pan out (pun intended), and when I got to college my dorm only had communal kitchens that were always disgusting, so I just watched people cook instead of cooking for myself.
In college I started to get very ill, and spent a lot of time resting while my roommates were out and about on campus. I’d lay in bed and watch Emeril throw salt around and yell, and though he made interesting food I’d never seen before, he wasn’t my favorite. Food Network was escapism for a chronically sick and tired person surrounded in crappy and overpriced college food options. Mario Batali made Italian food that wasn’t just pasta with red sauce, which was exciting, and Paula Deen was ever present, tossing sticks of butter into everything from pancakes to pot roast. It wasn’t until I had access to my own kitchen and Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis were in my regular rotation that I truly attempted to become a good cook. Their food was so beautiful and bright that it jumped off the screen and made me want to try it for myself. Of course, those chefs had people prepping their designer vegetables and I was lugging bags home on foot from a dreary Safeway in the Watergate basement, but still. It was fun to try something new.
However ill I became, food seemed irrelevant despite unhelpful advice to just try the BRAT diet or maybe eliminate gluten. Even when I found out I had an autoimmune disease, I was relieved that at least I didn’t have to cut out bread. There are things I can’t have, like popcorn, whole nuts, and raw vegetables, but thankfully I don’t have any allergies to food. So I kept trying, kept cooking, kept watching the pros and absorbing their tips and tricks. I wanted to make food that was beautiful and inviting like I’d seen on TV, and not brown stew with a BAM! of paprika just to make it look less sad. Bobby always said you shouldn’t add something that doesn’t make sense to the dish just for color, like the sad parsley sprinkled on the rim of a plate at Applebee’s. If it looks like your dish needs color it probably also needs a bright taste to cut through muddier slow-cooked flavors.
I still made mistakes. I tried to make a Thanksgiving dinner for my fiancé who had told me about Turducken. Since it was just the two of us, I found a Turducken-style turkey breast and it turned out so dry I could barely cut through it. This error is still a mystery because it came with specific instructions which I followed closely but was so awful we threw it out. Before people were taking pictures of every meal they ate for Instagram, I was cooking food that would look beautiful on a plate just because I wanted to be proud of what I’d worked hard to make. I don’t like the look of stew, but I also dislike the taste, because every bite not only looks the same, but tastes the same. At this point, I started to have a love affair with the Barefoot Contessa. Not only was her food beautiful, her home and her kitchen were so stylish her show was a joy to watch. I still adore her, and most of her recipes are classics served on big white platters to ultra-cool guests. She made breaded chicken for Mel Brooks, for crying out loud. Served under a lightly dressed arugula salad, it looked like a masterpiece, obviously.
Sometimes I feel like making food that appeals to my eyes helps convince my kids to try new flavors. Whenever I give the kids a more bland version of the main meal, like curried grilled chicken as opposed to the same chicken in a curry sauce, I do my best to make the grown up version look inviting, and occasionally we get curious eyes on our plates asking to try a bite. Between their allergies (peanuts and sesame) and my restrictions which vary from day to day, I have enough challenges coming up with meals. Mom tried to get me to try a meal prep delivery service after my third child arrived and I just knew there was no way to make it work. No nuts, no tahini, no sesame seeds or oil, no raw vegetables, oh and this week no beans or cauliflower, and next week I won’t be able to eat brown rice or lentils, but the week after that I can eat broccoli just fine for some reason, and on and on forever. Modification is the name of the game, so I’ve had to practice substitutions a lot.
I make bad food all the time. I forget to taste as I cook, I overcook, undercook, under season, over season, and lately have to juggle and modify ingredients from unreliable grocery pickups and bonkers substitutions like ordering pork butt and getting thin cut chops. Making the effort to add color really helps with taste and texture and makes it easier to see what is missing from a dish before it gets to the table. As a person of minimal design tastes who wears mostly black leggings, this is where I get my color. Someday when all my kids are in school I’d like to learn how to actually be a good cook, hone my knife skills, and master the mother sauces, but I don’t know what the end goal would be. My health is unpredictable at best, and predictably intrusive at worst, so I don’t imagine I could ever work in a real kitchen with the physical demands that would require. For now, it’s about practice. Grandma said I’d know when my roast chicken was cooked when I wiggled the leg, or I’d know when to take the steak off the grill when I pressed it with my finger. There’s a reason grandmas are always the best cooks — they have a lot of practice. How many chicken legs has she wiggled in her lifetime? How many steaks has she poked? I am spending quarantine practicing to get things right, but also practicing fixing my mistakes. How to adjust seasoning at the last minute, how to fix an undercooked chicken that has already rested and been carved, how to get the right consistency of buttercream (the impossible dream), how to pipe frosting, how to fix a piping mess, and so on. Practice makes progress, and maybe when I’m a grandma I’ll get it just right.