There really are two types of people: those who cook and those who don’t. I was always one of those who don’t. Josh said it was my biggest flaw. And not only did I fail to embrace the whole culinary thing, but I was not sufficiently impressed with his skills in the kitchen–an essential part of his identity. He thought cooking should be some kind of romantic experience for us. But my idea of intimacy had nothing to do with chopping onions together.
One of our worst fights was over pesto. I was standing in my cramped kitchen on Mulberry Street, trying to act all excited about preparing a meal together. As he rinsed the basil, he started explaining, ever so slowly, how to wash it properly, and I rolled my eyes. He threw the basil into the trash and stormed out of the apartment. We never did make that pesto.
In fact, we rarely got anything made, because he would stand next to me and say things like, “Are you sure you want to cut the onions like that ?” and I would slam the knife down, escape into the other room and do something I felt more comfortable with–like checking my messages. I was being watched and judged. I felt like he was testing me and I was always failing his food test. A few minutes later, he would come in and apologize and then we would prepare the rest of the meal together, silently fuming. It was our little Cooking Ritual.
After a while, we would even argue about what to eat, and so even the suggestion of food became completely loaded. Eventually, we just gave up on cooking altogether and, after that, on eating together. We ended up just meeting for drinks to avoid what we called the “cooking fights.”
Maybe it wasn’t all his fault. He was a sweet guy who was worried I wasn’t serious enough about him. In his mind, if I would just show a little interest in cooking, it would prove that I was interested in him. But my case of cooking anxiety went back into childhood. I can’t remember ever feeling at ease in the kitchen. One summer, when I was home from college, my mom innocently asked me why there were six eggs in the freezer; I told her I was making egg salad. She looked puzzled, so I explained that egg salad was cold and you had to get the eggs cold somehow. She laughed a hysterical mocking laughter that seemed to go forever. The eggs-in-the-freezer incident became one of those “You’ll never believe what Stacy did” stories that lasted for months afterward.
I tried to stay away from the whole topic of cooking. It made me nervous. So it was a little odd that I would end up dating a culinary fascist.
Anyway, we broke up. In my private spin on what happened between us and what went wrong, I reconsidered our cooking fights. Maybe the fascist was right. Maybe the cooking could have made for something nice between us, a quiet domesticity that I had rejected but now wished I had. Alone and lonely, I suddenly felt I had to learn to cook if I was going to be a “well-adjusted” person.
I started slowly, by reading the Dining In-Dining Out section of The New York Times , and soon I was actually making cooking plans with my friends and engaging in cooking-related conversations. I even went to the Union Square Farmer’s Market and tried to stare at the vegetables lovingly.
Eventually, I had no choice–the time had come. I signed up for Peter Kump’s School of Culinary Arts. This was serious. Five sessions of five-hour classes over five Wednesdays at a cost of $450. It was a huge commitment. The class was called Techniques 1, and we were promised that we would learn how to “intuit” meals–we were not going to be “slaves to the recipes.” They informed me, upon enrollment, that certain supplies were required–so I packed my bag that first Wednesday with my new Peter Kump apron, a hand towel and two knives (paring and chef). I was secretly excited to be carrying around the tools of the trade and kept checking on my knives throughout the day. I was on my way toward reinventing myself.
When I walked into class that first night, I saw eight other cooking wannabes and Jerry, the teacher with heaps of curly hair. We sat around a long table, facing our knives and Peter Kump instruction notebooks (containing pages and pages of lesson plans, recipes, temperature charts, quizzes, equipment check lists, notes with subheadings like “How to Care for Your Cookware,” “Meal Planning,” and “Managing Your Cooking Time”). Each of us told the group (A.A.-style) why we were there.
“My name is Stacy and I have always been afraid of cooking,” I said.
It was a group of all ages and races–a Met Life guy with a mustache, a lefty Legal Aid lawyer, a woman who was the descendant of the Second Avenue Deli family, a young Asian computer hacker-type, a Chiat-Day ad-dude from California, a cute visual artist and others.
After a while, I realized something: I wasn’t the only one who was there as a byproduct of a failed romantic relationship.
The cute visual artist told me she was in the process of extracting herself from an eight-year relationship. She said that when she started dating her boyfriend, she would cook for him all the time. “Maybe it was because his mom was a career mom, but when I cooked, he never seemed to appreciate it; no one cared. I got disparaged and stopped. When I knew the relationship was over and that everything was falling apart, I was signing up for cooking classes. It was the only thing I wanted to do.”
First she took a one-day intensive chicken class. “We learned 11 different ways to make chicken,” she said. “It was the first class I could get into and I was so desperate to get into one so I took it, even though I was a vegetarian.”
At midnight I would return from class with Tupperware containers filled with my gourmet successes: baked tomatoes, chocolate mousse, lamb shank. Sometimes I would cart my Peter Kump leftovers into my new relationship, stopping over at his apartment after class. I was deserting my camp, fleeing to the side of the Cooking Types, leaving my people behind. No longer would I be one of those people with only a jar of mustard in the fridge.
Then came my real test–the visit to Mom. Back in my pre-Peter Kump days, I would be the flaky daughter coming into the kitchen to pick while my mother and sister cooked. But this time I was right there with them. This time, I had a whole new role. Not only did I julienne the red peppers, but first I shaved off their membranes, running the blade delicately against the skins. The family fell silent with awe. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. So no more Stacy-in-the-kitchen stories.
And back in New York with the new boyfriend, I’m the one who’s initiating the plans to cook together. But the points I would have gained in my last relationship from having an interest in cooking don’t mean anything with the new guy. Now I know about the baking, the braising, the blanching–but he doesn’t really care.
Not that things aren’t great–because they are. It’s just that things aren’t great simply because I can cook. He’d be just as happy eating at Veselka. I mean, I’m glad I can cook and I’m glad it’s not this big issue anymore and I’m glad my mom is impressed with me, but the truth is, I’m no better equipped to deal with a relationship because I know how to julienne.
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