When I was a kid, my father wanted me to work on cars with him. I look back on it now and regret I didn’t take him up on the offer, because while I can change a tire, jump-start an engine and in a pinch change the oil in my car, I’m otherwise largely reliant on others where my vehicles are concerned. More than that, though, I wish I’d had the wisdom to recognize that he was trying to bring me into something he enjoyed, so that I could enjoy it too.
He didn’t push it; nor should he have. It’s the sort of thing you can’t force. I just didn’t take to engines and gears and horsepower.
Over the years I’ve tried to get my son involved with me in the kitchen, but while he’s got a pretty good palate, he’s always found something else more interesting when it came time to cook.
But recently I’ve been thinking about how I started learning to cook, and how I’d teach someone else the basics. It started with my reminiscences about making stock, but thinking about that time in my life reminded me of what got me started writing about food online in the first place.
I started cooking seriously when I was a junior in college and moved out of the dormitories. By the time I was a senior, I was cooking every day, and I’d acquired my first decent knife and a few pots and pans I still have and use. I only got more interested in cooking during law school, but it wasn’t until around 1996 or 1997 that I started sharing my thoughts about food and cooking with friends, because that’s around the time I first got a reliable Internet connection.
The thing that started me down this memory lane is something I wrote on a message board run by some friends with whom I played an online game called Myth: the Fallen Lords. What I wrote was a description of how to cut up a chicken. I included some very bad photographs with the post, but I think the text was pretty clear, and my friends seem to appreciate it.
I was thinking again about cutting up a chicken recently because I was thinking about how I would teach someone to cook if I had the opportunity to do so. I suppose it’s not the most obvious starting point, but in my daydream I’d take four whole fryer chickens and demonstrate how to portion them into component parts, with the drumsticks, thighs and (boneless, skin-on) breasts as the “usable” portions, and everything else saved for stock.
I vaguely remember trying to cut up a whole chicken the first few times I tried it. I remember reading that it was the most economical way to buy chicken, which is something that remains true. I remember messing that chicken and the next few up pretty badly, but these days I can take a chicken apart in a minute or two.
Which is ultimately where I was going; cooking is a craft, and like any craft it benefits from experience. There are chefs who are more artist than craftsman, to be sure, but for most of us consistency is more important than creativity.
So what I tell people now is that if you have an interest in cooking you should cook as often as you can. There’s no substitute for experience, but the good news is that cooking is not the sort of thing that requires great strength, quickness, reflexes or even intelligence. Cooking is chemistry, sure, but you don’t have to understand the science behind it to put great food on the table.
What you need is interest, the ability to pay attention and the time to follow through.
I talked to my son about whether he was interested in learning how to cook. He was noncommittal, but I think I saw a little spark in his eye…
I’d be interested to hear your stories about how you came to the PI game or to whatever other group you belong.