Anyone Can Cook
The title of this week’s piece is derived from the maxim of Auguste Gusteau from Pixar’s 2007 animated movie Ratatouille. A Chef Boyardee figure who appears to have earned his fame through affiliate marketing and image licensing, he attempted to inspire the love of cooking in everyone. By that definition, anyone can cook. A semi-literate chimpanzee can follow a cue card worth of instructions and put together a meal. I imagine the chief antagonist of the movie, food critic Anton Ego had a different definition of cooking, which consisted of food pairing, as well as designing innovative recipes and techniques. This is more in line with what haute cuisine and gastronomie aficionados would consider cooking. Although I’m someone who cooks exclusively to survive, my definition of cooking aligns much more closely with that of Ego’s.
For me, cooking not only includes the consistent preparation of meals, but also the procurement of materials with as few trips to the grocery store as well. This entails cooking a landslide majority of meals, and cooking every day, so that every meal is diverse and fresh. Coupled with a trip to the grocery store a week on average, the cook must not only be a consummate planner, but a master of substitution and improvisation. This contrasts with the two commonly accepted millennial modes of cooking, which represent opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first of these is the meal prep cook. These exist across the various millennial classes, but tend to be concentrated in those concerned with efficiency, and those whose companies don’t comp lunch. In my head, data scientists, accountants, and life coaches are most likely to partake in this trend. Meal prep isn’t the planning, shopping, washing, and chopping that comes before cooking, but is the preparation of a week’s worth of meals on the weekend. As cooking for few is inefficient, the idea is to cook enough to feed a large family for a dinner, or one person for an entire week. This involves substantial amounts of Tupperware, freezer space, and tolerance for the same bland defrosted meal for a week straight. My obvious disdain for meal prep aside, it’s clear that it is nothing more than a survival technique, motivated by cost efficiencies. And if cooking is simply combining industrial amounts of ingredients at varying temperatures, then yes, everyone can cook.
The Instagram cook is another ailment of millennial poverty. Due to the lack of free time, yuppie hobbies are all eerily similar: physical exercise (gym, spin, rock climbing, and cycling), entertainment consumption (books, movies, music, television), and poisoning themselves with substances when they are not working (drugs, alcohol, tobacco). Cooking is a hobby that is a cut above. It’s different, creative, and productive, but it certainly annoys me how sustaining oneself with food, a fundamental need of survival, is now a hobby. Granted, no one is eating bucco osso, beef wellington, or coq au vin for dinner every day, and if there’s an interest, it certainly merits a social media blast. It’s impressive to make foreign cuisine in a shoebox condominium unit, and there’s innovation involved after a certain point, but it remains order-taking from a recipe book, or more likely, a YouTube video until then.
Before the comments blow up with righteous recipe-followers defending themselves, I would like to add that I have nothing against recipes. Recipes are a great way to prepare meals: anyone can follow them, and results are virtually guaranteed unless the cook is missing a couple standard deviations worth of IQ. However, I feel that it demonstrates little mastery of the craft. A cook is not someone who asks for meat to the ounce at the butcher, measures salt with a teaspoon, and requires an exact cultivar of tomato. A cook can use whatever quantity of ingredients are in the refrigerator, adds oil until the pan is glistening, and only knows two temperatures on the stovetop: very hot and off.
This philosophy stems from watching my father. Watching because he never took the time to explain it to me; he was far too busy for that. He would come home after a day of work, and start the rice cooker if I had forgotten to. In the time that it took the rice to finish, he would have three, sometimes all four burners going, if he made a soup. Knives would be flashing, the fume hood roaring, and the sink always running. A stir-fry in a wok, a pan-fried dish in a cast iron, a steamed dish in a steamer, and maybe even something in the oven. In the span of forty-five minutes, dinner would be served, raw ingredients converted into a delightful meal for the family.
We went grocery shopping once a week: as a child, I had to come along and they felt tortuously long. He never took pictures of what he made: they were consumed much too quickly and far too little care for that. Sometimes, we would have a soup or a braised meat dish that lasted a couple of days, but not much usually was eaten beyond lunch the next day. I remember his vehement protests when my sister and I referred to lunch as “leftovers”; he insisted that we not call them that since extra was prepared specifically for our school lunches. This was the only time I remember him demanding respect for what he cooked; otherwise it was just good food.
To reach this level of cooking is something that I aspire to do. As someone who didn’t care too much about what they ate, it took a while for me to graduate from college cooking: raw vegetables, frozen dumplings, and grilled meat. A combination of things pushed me over the edge: roommates with condiments, discovering baked vegetables, friends who were interested in cooking, and importantly, Salt Fat Acid Heat. Nosrat’s reference book breaks down cooking as a process and explains to the reader how each element of cooking works together to produce a meal. To say that I retained even a quarter of the content is an exaggeration, but it certainly gave me the confidence I needed to cook whatever with whatever.
Can I cook? I’m not sure if I’m there yet. Given my limited repertoire, it certainly is a challenge. Growing up, my mother would help with the planning and the preparatory work, something I realize I had given her far too little credit for now. To take out frozen meat a day prior to cooking it, to assess how to cook the vegetables prior to them becoming limp, or to ration the green onions until my next trip to Chinatown takes a lot of mental real estate. I mostly make cook stir-fries and grilled meat, with an occasional soup here and there.
That being said, last Friday I went grocery shopping, and bought just under fifty dollars worth of food that fed me this entire week. Onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and daikon radish made up the vegetables, while two cuts of pork, frozen basa fillets, and eggs made up the protein. These were supplemented by some peppers, garlic, and fruits. My most diverse haul yet, I made a soup, a stew, and of course, several stir fries. I cut the meat into 丝, 丁, and 片, dividing them into separate servings before freezing them. Onions were caramelized in a stir fry as well as a stew. Radish was used in three separate dishes. I accidentally put too many hot peppers in a dish, something I didn’t think was possible. A great week of old favourites and new lessons.
Can anyone cook? By my definition of cooking, not everyone can cook in that it requires more than following a recipe. I think a majority of my peers are further than I from the zenith to which I aspire. But I think anybody can cook in that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to buy groceries for a week at a time and cook dinner at least every other evening. It just takes some practice. I’m not especially talented in this area, nor am I particularly motivated. It’s a big headache when the week is running out to figure out how to effectively use what’s left in the fridge. But if I can do it, so can you. Anyone can cook.