I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking lately.
This fall, our youngest child went off to college, leaving a rather empty house. I suddenly remembered my mother’s reaction to my leaving home. I was an only child, so she told my dad that now it was just the two of them, she was quitting the kitchen. And she did, just like that. She had cooked amazing, nutritious meals for nineteen years, and she needed a break. So for the next twelve months, the two of them basically ate at the cafeteria at work. They kept cereal and peanut butter at home for emergencies like breakfast, but that was about it.
And now here I am, in a similar situation. So for the past month, in honor of my mother, I have given up cooking. I am existing quite happily on pre-bagged salads from the grocery store. Oh, and chocolate bars. When my wife and I are at home at the same time, we forage in the back of the kitchen cupboards. Quite a change. Meanwhile, a thousand miles away, our daughter is trying to work out how to cook for herself in a tiny dorm room at a school that doesn’t have a meal plan.
How did I cook at college? When I left home, my mother took me to the department store and bought me a single knife. It was top quality, Sabatier brand. Classic black handle with those unmistakable three dots. Five inches of lethal forged steel with a serrated tip. Take care of this knife, she said, and it will do just about anything you need in the kitchen. In the years that followed, I would go to the vegetable market once a week and return to my room with bags of apples, carrots, and whatever other vegetables were in season. Fresh English cucumbers, sweet on the tongue; ripe tomatoes, heavy with seeds; bitter watercress. Cheese from the cheese stall – sharp yellow farmhouse cheddar, strong as an ox, sliced thin on wholemeal granary loaf. Zucchini too – we called them courgettes because they were French – julienned and thrown into a pan with onions and garlic. The smell lingering in the stairwell outside my room.
For us, in those pre-microwave days, the challenge was to see what could be achieved on a two-ring electric hotplate. My friend Neville was the king. While I contented myself with stirfrys and the occasional curry, he branched out into French haute cuisine, one time preparing a three-course dinner for five using only two pans and a lot of forethought. We sat on the floor in his room in astonishment as he produced the meal of the year. And when the heavy cream “mousse au chocolat” arrived to top it off, we suspected this was the greatest moment of our college experience.
Anyway, back to my daughter in the present day. At her school, they are not allowed rice cookers or anything very electrical – just a microwave. So even with a good knife, students have to get very creative. For sure, there are a lot of pre-packaged microwave meals out there. But I’m sort of excited to hear about a new development in the dorm cooking world.
It turns out there is a whole publishing industry devoted to cooking using nothing but a mug and a microwave. Books with enticing titles such as “Mug Meals,” and “Meals in a Mug” promise that you can make just about anything with a mug and a 700-watt Kenmore. Mushroom soup, no problem. Banana bread, a piece of cake. Eggplant parmesan, bring it on. Teriyaki Salmon, Bananas Foster. Heck, I wouldn’t know how to make half of these things in a big kitchen. I’m thinking of sending my daughter one of those books. Probably more for me than for her, but I’m just so interested to see what’s possible. Maybe I should buy the book for myself!
Last week, I got out that old knife from my mother. It’s had its day by now. The handle is cracked beyond repair. But I was still able to slice a tomato and some good cheese. Thank you, mum, for the example. I’ve given up cooking like you did, but I’ll be back. And maybe I’ll start with a mug of salmon teriyaki…
Music: "Church" by Lyle Lovett