It's a humble accomplishment, but it was an unlikely one for most of my life. In the beginning I simply scorned cooking. It seemed like one of the many things my mother had to do all the time that prevented her from doing what she wanted, and it became associated in my mind with cleaning the bathtub: The more you could avoid it, the better. In my twenties a new development hindered me, one that was baffling for a person who thought she cared nothing for food: I kept falling in with food people. There was my friend Steven, who once sliced an apple to pieces in midair because he was so excited about his new cleaver. And Aaron, whose wife used to beg him to cook less, because he made so many courses they wouldn't sit down to eat until ten. I started haunting the farmers market, and I furtively bought a few cookbooks. But the passion and verve of my friends, having seeded my own culinary ambitions, also nipped them in the bud. No sooner did I become excited about food than I had a huge complex about it. I'd once unself-consciously stir-fried, made eggs and spaghetti, but these skills went the way of the rest of my kitchen self-confidence. I took to eating raw tofu for dinner. Some nights I had popcorn.
When I moved in with my boyfriend—a food person—I was again the audience to a wonderful cook, but for the first time the cook was always at close range, mine to study while he dolloped crème fraîche, roasted a duck, or shucked oysters. When I first discovered food, it seemed to me like a thrilling foreign country, full of esoterica and rituals, languages and skills that I'd never possess. Now I had a native on my hands, and I started noticing something about him that seemed familiar. Like me, he craved certain foods. But instead of ordering approximations of them in restaurants, he made them himself. He didn't cook to impress people, although people were often impressed. He didn't cook to be a virtuoso; often he was virtuosic, but just as often his creations were as basic and great as a butter-and-sliced-radish sandwich. I had gotten cooking all mixed up with expertise and being judged and criticized—but might it simply be about desire?
Remember the pantry I was bragging about? I recall the stark spectacle that my kitchen presented when I first decided I wanted to cook: a few cans of tuna, a brick of frozen spinach, a tub of yogurt, and a whole lot of popcorn. These are all things I still keep on hand, but now each presents so many possibilities—even the frozen spinach (though perhaps not the popcorn). Back then I didn't even know what half the things I needed would look like. And I really did get a crick in my neck from bending over the cookbook as if reading instructions for estimating my taxes. But in the end the hurdle was jumped. I cooked my first dinner from a cookbook (a three-dish Indian feast), although we didn't sit down to eat till ten.
I hadn't needed cooking lessons or exceptional talent, only the drive that a real craving gives you. The first time I set out to make Paula Wolfert's chicken smothered in cracked green olives, I went to the legendary Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village for the olives. I'd been there many times before, always a timid interloper, on the margins, watching someone else shop. Murray's was that thrilling foreign country, and now I belonged.
Susan Choi is the author of the novel The Foreign Student (HarperPerennial).
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