When did you learn "how to cook"?
Was there a decisive moment when you declared, "Yeah, I know how to cook now."
Most of us on Chowhound, esp. the Home Cooking board, consider ourselves as being able to cook. Maybe not as well as Thomas Keller, or maybe not with as much homey-goodness as our mom, or maybe not as frequently as our grandmother, but to some extent we all consider ourselves as able cooks.
My question, then, is when did you realize that you were able to cook?
Was there one moment? Like when you realized how to make great scrambled eggs? Or when you were able to bake a perfect chocolate souffle? Or when you mastered the perfect flaky pie crust? Or when you learned to how grill meat to the perfect medium rare without the use of a thermometer?
Or did it happen gradually without you even realizing it? Like perhaps after a great family gathering when everyone complimented you on every single course, from apps to entree to dessert? And as you stood there doing the dishes you realized, "hey, I can really cook!"
Reflecting on your list of questions has been a satisfying self analysis exercise. I've "cooked" since I was old enough to read and follow recipes on the side of soup cans and other commercial packaging. I was blessed to have patient immediate and extended family members that ranged from good cooks to fantastic cooks to encouraged me. The first time I realized that I might qualify as a "capable" cook is when I began to justifiably critique the food on the menu and on the plate when I visited various restaurants. First chain restaurants (e.g. Denny's, IHOP, etc.) then three and four star restaurants. Later, when I developed an interest in some ethnic foods and had completed a few classes on ethnic specialties, I found myself critiquing those. About the same time I discovered I could write some pretty good recipies of my own and that I was beginning to understand what I might expect if I adjusted a recipe I read in a book or magazine. It was then that I felt I could call myself a cook. There aren't enough years left in my life for me to ever achieve Chef status - but I'd sure like to have had that opportunity.
Both my parents cooked, so I figured it was something anyone could do. I started with scrambled eggs at eight followed closely by French Toast. Cakes and cookies came later by the time I was ten. I added custards and pies from scratch in high school. Then fried spam with brown sugar and cloves and Kraft maccaroni and cheese. In high school I made some sourdough bread and strudel. I also cooked some recipes out of my mother's old cookbook--I loved making curries. But I didn't cook seriously until I was 28 and we had to take turns in a monastery. And it wasn't as if I were doing something new. I knew I could cook. It was like adding words to a vocabulary when you already knew the language. Joy of Cooking was my dictionary. I focused on soups and the way flavors blended. Then came learning to cook fish. I didn't understand braises until I was in my mid fifties. I'm still learning. One of these days I may actually learn to grill a steak properly.
Some years ago in Africa I was asked to dance. I was always shy about dancing. My African friends couldn't understand how you could be human and not dance. So I let their drums carry me away. Similarly, I can't understand how anyone can be human and not cook.
I come from a family of really talented home cooks, so I was lucky to be able to learn from all of them and to have their encouragement along the way.
I do think one's real ability to cook happens gradually. By the time I figured out I didn't always have to follow a recipe to a T, I guess that's when I knew I was onto something. It has just gotten more fun from there.
I like something I heard Rick Bayless say about cooking. To paraphrase, "When I cook something, you should be able to tell when you eat it that I made it." I think being able to impart one's own signature/style to the point others can identify it as yours, that would be the mark of knowing you truly know how to cook. And with some of the things I make, I think I'm there...even if it's only my slow and low cheesy scrambled eggs, brownies, tacos, meatloaf or chili. There's something about the way I make each of these particular dishes that has my stamp on it. And I think that's kind of cool.
I was 11, and I remember the exact time. I always helped mom especially baking. Funny because I don't enjoy baking know. But Mom was a teacher and we had a summer home in northern MI while living in Dearborn Detroit area. So every weekend and summers were spent at the summer home. We had a garden and lots of fresh fruits and veggies. I always helped in the kitchen but I guess I didn't really care. One thanksgiving we were up north and mom got sick with the flu the night before thanksgiving. Mom talked me through some things, but basically I did it myself. Homemade butter ever since I was 8 every year, dressing from scratch, potatoes as well, turkey and ham, gravy fresh, waldorf and ambrosia salads, homemade bread, 2 cranberry sauces, one a ginger mold and one regular, got to please several people, 2 pies pumpkin and pecan and fresh whipped cream.
And yes I was 11, Mom couldn't believe it. I was like on auto pilot. I seem to know just what to do without her saying anything it was wierd. My whole family and our friends who came couldn't believe it. I even remember making place cards from scratch for the table and mom was so sick so I set the table too. I picked fresh greens from outside. It had snowed 2 days before built a fire. Went out to get pinecones from outside to decorate the table and Froze cranberry juice for ice cubes for my glasses. Yes I was really 11. And I tides left over ribbon from christmas on each wine glass with a pine sprig. I think my mom knew then.
Funny thing 5 years later, I cared less about cooking ... until I was 25, then It hit ...I guess we all have our time. That was mine. That honestly is a true story.
Thanks for sharing this story. I've done things on 'autopilot' but it was in the garden, later I came to believe it was long-passed English estate-gardener grandfathers whose hands were guiding mine. I just seemed to know what to do in a situation I'd never faced before. I think they'd approve of my shoveling techniques : -)
I remember draggin out Mom's c. 1935 Fannie Farmer, I must've been about 12 or 13, to make some cookies while parents were gone for the day. Recipe called for blanched almonds, so I followed the instrcutions and blanched them. Thankfully, I am good at following written instructions! Mom was amazed.
I am definately a gradual cook. After getting married, the best I could do was boil water. I worked really hard to learn. Read every cookbook , and had some really bad meals. I can't even count the times I cried after a failure or how often the smoke alarm has gone off. At a young age my husband had a heart attack, and I needed to cook from scratch and cook healthy. No more take out. Ouch. So I guess that was my turning point. I can now just look in my pantry and refridge and put something together. A looooooong way from boiling water.