How I fell in love with cooking
I did not come from a cooking family. My parents could do a decent breakfast, but aside from that, their menus were limited. I’m not judging them; I’m just stating the facts. I did not think cooking could be enjoyable or would be enjoyable, but I have found a true love for it over the years.
In the Beginning
Growing up, our standards were pasta, steak and potatoes, mash potatoes from a box, Kraft mac and cheese, Stovetop Stuffing, peanut butter and jelly, lunch meats, and take out. Usually, we would have pizza one night a week and Chinese food another night. Occasionally, we would have Mexican food. Food preparation was always less than an hour.
We cooked pasta the American way, or as Italians call it, the wrong way. We over cooked it, washed it afterwards, and poured the sauce on it after putting it in the dish. I didn’t find issue with such barbaric techniques because it was normal to me. FYI, you should cook pasta al Dente, never wash it, and pour the pasta into the sauce.
My dad helped explain the terribleness of the food from his generation: you just burn everything because that way you know it is safe to eat. He won’t eat pork chops anymore as a result, no matter who is cooking them, nor will his siblings. That was generational.
Both my parents came from large families, so food wasn’t a top priority. Powdered milk was normal. In their mind, my generation was spoiled.
When I started grad school, I was on my own. I was cooking on my own and responsible for my eating overall. Previously, my diet included a lot of peanut butter and jelly as well as deli sandwiches. I couldn’t find bread I liked in South Bend, and I found the deli meat to be wanting. So, I had to adjust.
When I did cook, I cooked at scale so I wouldn’t have to cook everyday. On Sunday, I would make 8 hamburgers for the rest of the week. I would eat a lot of cereal and over cooked pasta, but cooking even for 30 minutes or an hour was overwhelming. Then I had to clean, and I hated doing the dishes. I would usually delay until all my dishes were dirty which contributed to my hatred of cleaning dishes because it would take me so long. I would cook breakfast for game Saturdays for my friends, but people would bring food, so I didn’t do too much work.
Then I met my wife, and she came from an Italian family. Food was the central player in the family. I grew to love a large varieties of food as well as appreciate the work required.
In 2010, I took a job where I was based in Pittsburgh but commuting down to DC a few times a month. I stayed at a friend’s place, and to reduce my travel costs, I aimed to cook most of my own food.
In Pittsburgh, we lived near my wife’s mother and grandmother, so we frequently ate there. We cooked at home once or twice a week, and usually, I was not the one in charge. However, in DC, nobody else was going to cook for me.
I started with the basics: pasta with sauce, Swiss chard, and meat and potatoes. I was cooking about 7 nights a month, and I started to get bored. I added pasta with anchovies, pasta with beans, and beans, rice, and sausage. Over the next four years, I became pretty good at cooking these meals, timing them, and modifying them to my taste. However, I still didn’t cook for the joy of cooking.
In this period, I also started to enjoy washing the dishes. At home, we didn’t have a dishwasher, so every night, I was washing dishes for thirty minutes or more. It became a nice ritual particularly because it was hard to do anything else. I could have music or a video on or talk to someone, but my hands were wet. To stop and do anything else involved rinsing my hands off and drying them; so I couldn’t stop immediately. It turned into a time of quiet reflection and character building by helping me sacrifice without asking for praise.
By 2014, I was growing my own tomatoes, helping making pasta sauce from those tomatoes, helping make cured meats, and getting a taste of what cooking really was. I still hadn’t learned the key to Italian cooking, but I was close to unlocking this illusion secret.
We moved to California in 2014, and we were on our own. We had to do all our own cooking, but for the first six months, we usually ate at Apple nightly because I was often working late. We would go to the farmers’ market on the weekend, and usually, one of those days, we would cook a big meal together for three or four hours. I had gotten good at making artichokes, and then I got enough tomatoes to make sauce for the year.
We expanded to all things we wanted to eat from back home, and recipes that had once seemed daunting, were quickly mastered. We learned to cook all things Italian, and my ability to cook meat just right became perfected (especially with the help of a thermometer).
Around this time, I discovered the key to Italian cooking, the magic so to speak. I had seen my wife’s mother take multiple recipes and merge them. We had gotten recipes from her grandmother that didn’t give quantities to ingredients. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head: they’re just making all this stuff up!
Salt to taste!
Italian cooking is an art because you adjust every recipe to your own taste. To figure out how much, it was simply trial and error. The more we cooked, the better we got at being able to wing it. From then on, I was tasting everything, and I lost the anxiety of cooking something new.
Cooking no longer is a chore but a pleasure. Without the fear of messing up and with the idea of improvisation, I plunged forth in learning how to cook. I learned how to make pasta from scratch and do it quickly. We were able to make Thanksgiving dinner and Easter dinners all on our own.
I also started cooking more frequently because of the kids. I was cooking them breakfast, and then I figured, why not cook breakfast for my wife and I. All of this cooking led us to approach the ultimate goal: timing.
The year of 2018 has been one of timing. I’ve been able to come home and start cooking a meal with three or four different components and make them finish at the same time. This is truly a miracle. I’ve also perfected making bread, pizza, curing olives, making tomato sauce from scratch, mass production of tomato sauce, fresh pasta, all kinds of meat, lasagna, chicken dishes, and soups.
On a Sidenote
Two other interesting components that played to my love of cooking were working at Apple and a growing love for espresso. Working at Apple gave me an appreciation for hard work to get a quality user experience. I started to want a good user experience in all areas of my life, and I also wanted to provide the same to others.
My coffee adventure started off slow but picked up as a result of using my own machine at work, making at least two espresso shots a day for four years. I modified my setup to end up with consistent, high quality espresso every time.
The Real Joy of Cooking
The real joy of cooking turns out not to be eating the food, but the journey of getting there. I much more enjoy that journey with others and when serving others. Ultimately, cooking has greatly improved my character in an unexpected and amazing way.