I learned about cooking mostly from hanging around the kitchen and getting occasional pointers from my mother. This is how you cut up a chicken, this is how I do ham for pea soup, could you get out the frozen peas for me? I set and cleared the table, did the dishes, and trailed along in the grocery store. My mother adhered to the meat, starch, vegetable and dessert theory of dinner—good nutrition–but cooking wasn’t her love. On special occasions she made Chinese or Indian food, a big production. Most of the time I think it was easier for her to do it herself. Breakfast was OJ and cereal, lunch was soup and sandwiches, and it wasn’t hard to learn to do this on my own.
Big error: I hadn’t actually checked the recipe before the day of the meal.
There were a few things I made when I was a teen, that she wouldn’t have bothered with. Mostly Jello and cakes from mixes, with homemade butter and confectioner sugar frosting. I ate most of the product, with a little help from my sisters.
The first time I tried to make a real meal was my second year in college, when I moved into the one of the co-op dorms. There were maybe twenty people in each dorm, and we all took turns cooking dinners on weekday nights. The kitchen was large and well-equipped with a good variety of staples, and there must have been a budget for the meals. Some people seemed to relish the idea of showing off their skills and got kudos from the always-hungry dorm-mates. I felt I was out of my depth, but still had the responsibility to rise to the occasion on the appointed day.
How I settled on my menu who knows, but probably it had something to do with cost and simplicity. I recall sausages boiled in water, with mustard and sauerkraut (did I know enough to cook it or just serve it straight from the jar?). Hot dog buns. Maybe salad for more vegetable? For dessert, I inexplicably decided on custard, which I had never cooked and rarely ate. Maybe it seemed exotic and I was trying to compete at least a little. But why not the cake from a box—or even the rubbery Jello–which I actually knew how to make?
In any case, it turned out that making custard from the recipe I located (from scratch—not a mix) was far more complicated than I anticipated. Big error: I hadn’t actually checked the recipe before the day of the meal. Soon I was stirring eggs over a double boiler and putting the product in small ramekins, which had to be placed in a water bath in the oven to cook. What was I thinking? Somewhat anxious about getting everything done in time to be served (hungry students are not always patient), I sprinkled the garnish of nutmeg over the top of the custard—and then realized it looked a little funny. Uh oh, it was turmeric!
In a mild panic, I grabbed a spoon and scraped off the tops of all the custards, threw on the nutmeg, and hoped for the best.
When the meal was finally and belatedly placed on the table, I would say the reception to my cooking effort was, well, not cruel. But I don’t think anyone looked forward to my next meal. As it turned out, I left school after that semester and lived with a roommate in Berkeley, inventing food out of the weekly Food Conspiracy box of vegetables (heavy on the potatoes) and becoming adept at stir fry. And never made custard again.