Discovering my misguided confidence in my cooking abilities

On my first day, I burnt toast

lf17-EllieHanson

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I, bolstered by excessive optimism, assured my parents that I would absolutely not be needing a meal plan for my second year because “I can totally cook for myself.” And while not having to eat the dining hall food has fundamentally improved my standard of living, cooking my own meals and avoiding starvation is not without its hardships.

On my first morning in my new apartment, I attempted something I thought I was good at — eggs and toast. Easy, right? I went in confident, sure that after years of practice I’d be able to manage on my own, without my mom in the next room, alert and waiting for the smell of burning. And yet, my eggs somehow glued themselves to the pan and I killed my toast. Turns out there are lots of settings on a toaster and for some reason one of them is “completely and totally charred.” Can someone explain to me why this function even exists?

I tackled my first independent grocery shopping trip with my roommates, still bleary-eyed from the activities of Block Party the night before. And while I now enjoy my weekly trips to Kroger, this first experience left me overwhelmed and I almost broke down, defeated in the freezer aisle. But I was hungry and adverse to the concept of ramen for every meal, so I took a deep breath, grabbed whatever looked decent and cheap, then rolled my cart towards the produce section.

It was on this fateful day that I also had to confront the question of “what does a girl even buy at the grocery store?” for the first time. Snacking is one of my favorite hobbies and also one of the few things I truly excel at, so, in the name of health, I’ve been trying not to buy pretzels, chips or cookies. Instead I buy things with actual expiration dates, which leaves me in a constant state of anxiety. Somehow, I had remained blissfully unaware of how fast produce goes bad up until this point in my life.

In addition to learning to follow actual recipes, I’m also discovering the importance of taking inventory of what I have in the kitchen and being responsible about my grocery shopping habits. I once made the tactical error of deciding I had enough food to last me an extra week and kindly refused when my friend asked me to go grocery shopping with him. This turned out to be a horrible mistake. By the time another person with a car offered to drive me to Barracks, my shelf on the fridge held half a red onion, three tortillas and a jar of peanut butter. Peanut butter tortillas are not as bad as you would think, but are still far from a well-rounded meal, especially when you have to ration them and eat them for three days straight. 

At this point in the semester though, I’ve got some recipes I can consistently make properly and I’m actually starting to learn where things live in the grocery store. But just when I think I’m really starting to get the hang of this whole “cooking thing,” I ruin another dish. The other day I overcooked my stir fry and turned it into some variant of teriyaki-vegetable sludge. Disappointed in myself and still hungry, I had to throw the whole thing away. I stood over the trash can and stared at the soggy remnants of what I once thought would be a great dinner, feeling something akin to grief.

Now, I’m genuinely starting to like cooking, and some days I can even convince myself that I’m good at it. It’s only when people send me Snapchats of their elaborate meals, complete with fancy side dishes, spices and more than one element of the food pyramid that I look forlornly at my paper plate and sandwich and realize there’s a possibility I may be on the wrong side of the cooking abilities bell curve. But, luckily, I live in GrandMarc and can almost always hear the sounds of smoke detectors blaring from somewhere across the courtyard, signaling that I’m not the only one not destined for culinary genius.

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