I don’t like breakfast. Usually, I can’t stomach food before 11am, unless it’s a hearty chocolate biscuit dipped into my tea for just the right length of time (6 seconds and no more, otherwise you’ll have to fish out the soggy dregs from your mug with a spoon). However, this weekend, following a busy previous day at a wedding that involved free drinks, I woke up with a strident declaration to myself: ‘I want scrambled eggs.’ There was no rhyme or reason for my craving - do cravings ever make sense? - but I knew I had to have it, so I bought some eggs and butter and immediately looked up a few recipes. The reliable folks of the internet informed me that the best scrambled egg recipe was by Gordon Ramsay, a man who knows a thing or two about a good meal.
With my laptop on the kitchen surface next to the ingredients, I found a helpful video of Ramsay doing his stuff and followed it as closely as I could: Break the eggs into the pan and add butter; stir over a medium heat until they start to cook, then remove them from the hob and keep stirring; repeat this process until you have clumpy but soft eggs, then add a dollop of crème fraiche; season then enjoy. Nothing burned, nothing was set on fire and by the end of it, I had a breakfast to be proud of. It was the kind of breakfast that you just had to write a banal food tweet about, and I did. As someone who grew up with the indomitable belief that I could never cook, every successfully executed recipe is a minor victory.
My mum can’t cook, or at least, that’s what she’s been telling me since birth. I’ve borne witness to a few culinary disasters but most of her conviction comes from her repeating the phrase ‘I can’t cook’ until we’ve no choice but to believe it. I tried a few recipes as a kid, copying my idols on Blue Peter or asking my gran for the right way to make scones, but it always seemed more fun to read about and eat food than to actually make it. One time, I made a strawberry cheesecake for my sister, but hadn’t dissolved the gelatine properly, which led to her very politely trying to spit out a giant chunk of the stuff that had solidified in the middle of the cream cheese. Culinary experimentation was always for other people, more particularly, people with money.
The world of food is one of fantasy. Cooking shows and glossy cookbooks offer a polished document of how we think that life should look. The women are usually white, beautiful and seemingly effortless in their charm, lounging around kitchens the same size as my flat and seductively slicing peppers to the dulcet tones of smooth jazz; the men are allowed more grit, more aggression, and the force of authority. Everyone has the most up-to-date equipment, the most spotless homes, the prettiest dinnerware for those parties that only seem to happen on Food Network shows. If you’re a working class kid who doesn’t own a set of scales and who keeps hearing about the evils of cheaper ingredients, the notion of being a good cook seems as foreign as being a spy.
I decided I wanted to learn to cook while I was still living at home. I needed a hobby and I also needed snacks for my long days of unemployed procrastination. But the meat of my self-training came once I got a place of my own and realized I would quickly become bored of the four pasta dishes I could cook without disaster. I had always loved the idea of being someone with a shelf full of cookbooks, but costs forced me to the library instead, which offered a greater selection and none of the fees. True inspiration came from YouTube, from old episodes of Nigella Lawson’s show to Binging with Babish to Buzzfeed compilations of celebrity recipes. The format of many of these shows helped to demystify the cooking process: Their kitchens looked more like mine than anything I’d seen on Food Network; the dishes weren’t always immaculately presented; sometimes, the chefs screwed up and admitted it. Some channels offered interesting intersections with other areas of interest, like Binging with Babish’s pop culture inspired dishes. Dare I say it, they all made cooking seem fun.
It started with a roast chicken, bought on a whim during my monthly shop. I carved out a few hours of a weekday night to commit to doing this properly. My little kitchen seemed wholly inadequate, but it was all I had to work with. Sticking to who I trusted, I followed a Basics with Babish special on chicken and clicked back repeatedly to make sure I followed the recipe to the word. Well, as much as I could, given my shortage of particular ingredients and the terrifying subsequent necessity to improvise: No lemon to stuff the cavity with so I used an onion; I couldn’t afford actual olive oil so I used a substitute that apparently had the essence of olive oil within. I seasoned the hell out of it for fear of being that woman who doesn’t season her chicken properly. As it cooked in the oven, I found myself too scared to do anything else lest I forget there was something cooking and set the entire building on fire.
The end result was intensely satisfying: Juicy, flavourful, the perfect texture, all ideally highlighted by paprika and garlic (I’m of the opinion that everything can be made tastier with garlic). That night, I had a proper roast chicken dinner, complete with vegetables and potatoes. Later, after I’d picked the carcass clean, often with my bare fingers for a late-night snack, I felt buoyed by my culinary success enough to continue the trend and make stock, which I then turned into chicken pasta soup. Suddenly, every old wives tale I’d heard about the restorative properties of chicken soup came true. I’ve since then made the recipe a few more times but it never tastes as good or feels like as major an accomplishment as it did the first time.
What has been greatly emphasized for me during my minor cooking lessons - from white bread to ham in Coca Cola to pancakes to my own pasta sauces and beyond - is that the act of nourishing yourself with something you made with your own hands never stops being rewarding. Whether you’re making a salad from the remnants of that sad bag of lettuce left at the bottom of your fridge or baking a giant tray of cinnamon rolls drowning in cream cheese icing, each foray into the kitchen begins to mean something. It’s a tiny accomplishment when everything else going on that day fails. It’s intense catharsis - punching dough in particular - when it’s most sorely needed. It’s waiting hours for the chicken to cook, resisting the urge to turn up the oven temperature, then letting the juices rest and then finally eating it with a sigh of success. After years of doubt, it’s not just the joy of finding out I can actually cook: It’s the pleasure of realizing that I like to cook.
What’s your favourite recipe? Share it in the comments. I could use the inspiration!