I’ve joked many times about not being an adult. Mostly, it’s banter, but sometimes I wonder if I really mean it, because there are lots of things I associate with adulthood that I either cannot do, or have never done. I wonder why I feel as though I need these life experiences to give myself the peace of mind.
The more I think about these “adult-making” experiences—these rights of passage—the more I think they are my attempts to emulate my father. Growing up, Mom had to work nights, which left Dad to deal with feeding my brother and I. This was never a problem, because my dad loves to cook. I have many memories of nights after band practice, or cross-country practice, or track practice, or theatre rehearsal, sitting on the sofa reading or doing homework while my brother played games on the computer. The television may be on, but if so, it was muted, because my father had some Steely Dan or blues radio cranked, cranked so he could enjoy it in the kitchen. He would be sipping on a glass of wine, or a beer, peeling or chopping, slicing or boiling, frying or baking. Even if it was an “easy” night with a frozen pizza (or two, if Tim and I were in-season), he was cutting up extra onions, peppers and olives and covering it all in extra mozzarella cheese.
It was a mystery the things he did (and still does) in the kitchen. When I was young, I guess I was always too scared to get in his way. I took it for granted that there was a chef preparing my dinners. (And, let the record state, my mother is also a phenomenal cook. Some nights, we would come home to find things already prepared: lasagna in the oven or a roast in the Crockpot; it was always delicious.)
Flash forward to college: I lived in a dorm, so I never cooked. I was on a meal plan. Cooking was still not necessary. That is, until my junior year, when I spent a semester living in London. That semester, I had to cook for myself. It was terrifying, but I found out I could make a mean chicken noodle soup with bouillon and carrots… so I ate that a lot. My other tactic was to team up and help my friends cook. They could do it well, so I learned some things from them.
Fast forward and I was living at home again, waiting for my Peace Corps application to be processed. Mom still worked nights; I was working at a high school, still coming home late from grading and lesson planning. When I got home, it’s déjà vu. Dad’s cooking and working his magic. I wanted to help. I had acquired some dexterity in the kitchen. Every time I prepared and cooked dinner, something went wrong. My father had to step in and help me out, or I was asking for it because I panicked. I was still a failure in the kitchen, but I was at least working along side my dad, trying to learn everything I could before I left the country.
Fast forward again, and follow me across the Pacific. I find myself with my own, albeit small, kitchen. The last volunteer who lived here told me he rarely cooked, because it was, “just easier to eat out, and just as cheap”. That’s totally true, but dammit, I want to cook. There are many things I hope to gain from my Peace Corps experience, and one of them is an ease and competency in the kitchen. So armed with the knowledge and experience from London, my father and that delightful Wii game Cooking Mama, the following is the narrative I wrote 17 November, 2011, after cooking my first meal in my flat.
I am afraid of cooking. I can’t do it. I’ve never been any good at it. However, I feel obligated to start doing it. Chinese food isn’t always the healthiest, especially most of the food I eat off the street. This is a way I can have more control of what I consume. I want to be healthy.
I’ve been avoiding actually cooking. I cleaned my kitchen over two months ago. Then I put off buying a frying pan or wok. You see, my kitchen doesn’t have a stovetop, which scares me even more. The very little experience I have in the kitchen is on a stove. Now, all I have is a half-busted hotplate and this wok I bought last week. I’ve never cooked on a hotplate, nor in a wok.
Because I have a wok (and because it seems simple enough), I’ve decided my first meal is going to be fried rice. How hard can it be, right? I have rice (of course I have rice), and I found some beautiful red bell peppers on the street today. It’s the first time I’ve seen bell peppers in China, so I bought a couple and some carrots. Thinking about fried rice I had at Chinese restaurants back home, I remember there being egg in it, so I bought a couple of those, too.
I have a rice cooker. I’m so glad I have a rice cooker. That makes that part of the process so much easier. Cup of rice and a cup of water into the cooker, then “set it, and forget it!” (Sorry, that’s a terrible reference.)
Peeling the carrots and chopping up the veggies, I can’t help but wonder if I’m using an appropriate amount. I guess it doesn’t really matter. However, I worry a lot when I cook. I’m so afraid I’m going to ruin it. In fact, I almost cut myself at one point because I was worrying instead of paying attention to the cutting I was doing. I’m using a big ole cleaver. My host-dad in Chengdu always used a cleaver, no matter what he was cutting or chopping. I assume that means I’m integrating, right? Not only am I preparing a Chinese meal, but I’m using a knife that my sensibilities tell me is too big because that’s how I’ve seen Chinese people do it.
Now that all the veggies are chopped, I guess it’s time to turn on the hotplate. I wasn’t sure what kind of oil to buy. Back home, my family uses olive oil for everything. I can’t verify this, but I think it’s because it is healthy. I wanted to get olive oil, until I saw the price. It’s apparently a luxury item here in China, so it’s not happening on my budget. I went with peanut oil because someone told me that fish oil pops more and smells bad.
Alright, oil is hot and the veggies are in. When I see people do this on the street, the wok is just as hot as can be, and they just constantly move the things around in the wok. I’m not that daring, so I’ll turn the heat down and stir occasionally. I wonder if I should season this stuff. I have salt, pepper, paprika, basil and oregano. It was here when I arrived, but because the last guy said he didn’t cook, I imagine it’s been here a while. I guess I may as well put some stuff in it. It can’t hurt, right? Those are famous last words, but in this context, I assume if it does hurt, it’ll just be my taste buds.
This is taking too long. I’m getting impatient. I’m going to turn up the heat. I want to cook these veggies more before I add the eggs.
This is going really fast. I feel like I’m having an anxiety attack. It’s hot and I’m stirring it around constantly. I guess it’s time to add the eggs. Should I turn the heat down? I mean, if I’m cracking eggs, I can’t be stirring at the same time. I’m not one of those crack-an-egg-with-one-hand people. I’ll leave it hot. I’ve never been good at cracking eggs, even with two hands. Again, I wonder how many I should use. Two sounds like a good number. Crack. Dump. No shell. Crack. Dump. No shell.
I chose poorly. I should have turned the heat down. I definitely burned the peppers and carrots a bit. Oh, well. It happens. I need to keep stirring this. The egg is sticking a lot. The rice cooker just turned off, so as soon as these eggs look cooked, I’ll add the rice.
I’m so dumb! Do I have the memory of a goldfish!?? I forgot to turn down the hotplate while adding the rice to the wok, and burned the eggs and veggies a bit. It’s not a lot. It just adds colour. Stir, stir, stir the rice. Don’t stop stirring. I want to fry the rice quickly and I’m done. Oh! I have an idea. Why don’t I add some soy sauce to the wok? That’ll make it taste better, I think.
Well, the soy sauce has made the rice change colour, but it’s now more the colour I remember fried rice being Stateside. That’s a good sign. I guess it’s “fried” enough. Time to serve it up and hope for the best. The plan is to enjoy this dinner with a glass or two of aloe juice (it was on sale at the supermarket) and watch SNL on my computer.
Dinner was a success that night, and the episode of SNL was pretty funny, too. In fact, since then, doing some sort of fried rice type of dish has been my go-to meal. It’s so easy to do, especially when the only pan I have is a wok.
Cooking for myself has been a learning process. I’m finding google to be a great resource if I have a question I need answered. However, better still is when I get a long email from my mom or my dad, giving me advice and recommendations on how to prepare things. I’ve even emailed them a few recipes I have tried.
It seems as though we—we being the volunteers living in Lanzhou—have potluck-style dinners at least once a month. After uncomfortably showing up to the first few with only a bottle of wine, I can now prepare real food and contribute to dinner in a way that feels more substantial. I love it. As I continue to cook, I will post some successful recipes here to my blog (like the two linked above; check them out). I expect people to try them. If I can pull them off here in China, I know you can do them Stateside.