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May 22, 2012

Cooking with no reservations

There are a bounty of reasons for U of C students to set aside time in their days to cook.

The following conversation, or something like it, has taken place between me and my roommate almost every day the last month:

“Do you want to cook tonight?”

“Well, I dunno, we could go to the store and pick up...” A pause, followed by a look of mutual understanding.

“Fuck it.”

Just like that, we give in to yet another round of greasy takeout, or the aggressively mediocre food and ambiance of one of Hyde Park’s infinitely interchangeable restaurants. It makes sense. We’re tired, stressed, and low on time; that little extra bit of commitment needed to shop and cook seems extravagant when there’s so much to do. But we should make the effort. We really should. As I’ve learned over the past year, however much of a hassle it seems sometimes, it’s worth paying a little more attention to home and, especially, hearth.

For starters, cooking isn’t actually as much work as it seems, usually. Yes, you have to buy supplies first and, yes, the onion seems to have been bred over thousands of years specifically for its propensity to be impossible to dice neatly. However, when all’s said and done, you wouldn’t have spent much less time waiting around for a check. Also, you’re in college—you’re not going to be preparing a 17-layer terrine or an elaborate soufflé anyway. As long as you keep it simple, and choose recipes that are either fast or can largely be left unattended, your time and effort spent in the kitchen will be less than you think.

Another great thing about hitting the pots and pans is as clichéd as it is true: Food brings people together. You think you don’t have friends? Maybe you’re under the impression that no one in your life can spare an hour for you? False. You have merely failed to attract them with promises of fresh baked bread, hearty daal, or summery chicken tortilla soup (all, I swear, a snap to make). There are very few people in the world who actually have the ability to turn down a homemade meal, even if the definition of “home” is stretched to include the dingy cave that is your Mac apartment. Throw something in the oven and, without fail, people will gather. And if your friends are true paragons of camaraderie, you might get some beer or wine in the bargain too.

This advice, by the way, goes double for romantic occasions. Cooking is sexy. It has an element of the primeval; you wield your knife deftly against an animal or vegetable foe (just because it has been pre-filleted does not mean it isn’t a threat to your loved ones), bend it to your will (read: dredge in egg and then roll in flour), and then throw it onto a fire. Hot, no? And on top of any weird Freudian elements you read into it, it shows you care enough to spend time preparing a meal, and that you have a skill worth sharing. In my heteronormative experience, girls appreciate it. And I’m quite confident anyone, of any sex, gender, or orientation, would feel much the same.

None of this is to say that cooking cannot be an end in itself as well. An amazing thing about the culinary arts, especially as you get more comfortable with them, is their capacity to be just what they sound like—arts. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but look: I can’t paint; I can’t draw. The last time I tried to pick up a musical instrument I was threatened with legal action. As far as I’m concerned, playing chef is as valid an outlet as any of these other, more (personally) frustrating pursuits. Not, mind you, that I’m necessarily offering it as a substitute. But on a bad day, when writer’s block hits you hard or you leave the studio uninspired, try turning some simple garlic, tomatoes, and oil into something you’re proud of. You might be surprised how much it feels like a real, fulfilling accomplishment and creative release.

Finally, cooking is just plain fun. It should be, anyway. There are few hobbies more difficult to get overly serious about, assuming the Iron Chef film crew doesn’t spontaneously materialize in your kitchen. It’s normally an unusually relaxed atmosphere; how often are you with the people you care about and doing something as mindless as washing or stirring?  Run with it. Make silly mustaches with pieces of spaghetti. Throw flour at your housemates. Accidentally set the dial to broil and entertain your friends for years with the story of how you ruined your oven by throwing an entire lobster pot of water onto a flaming chicken breast (true story) (sorry, mom and dad). If you’re too “mature” to be a total goofball in public, at least take advantage of your right to be one in the privacy of your own home. It’s therapeutic.

Julia Child, of culinary and so-so Meryl Streep-vehicle fame, once said, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” Damn straight, Julia. How many other fields can you throw yourself into with abandon, with so little risk and so much potential, tasty benefit? So what the hell, right? Let’s get cooking.

David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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