Cooking Lessons

I have a useless knack for remembering arbitrary dates. It is rather silly, but sometimes I like tying my life together in tiny bursts of memory: nine years since I planted my first herbs (which languished in my tiny Augsburg apartment with not enough sun and too much humidity), seven years since I interned in Ecuador, (and got spoiled by fresh fruit juice every day), six years (six!) since I graduated from college. And ten years since I learned how to cook.

Hummus is like peanut butter now in its popularity, but in 2004 I’d never even heard of it. I took a trip to Washington D.C. to participate in a march with some folks from my freshman year of college student activism group. The professor charged with accompanying us was a vegetarian. She brought crunchy salty sesame sticks, morsel-sized sweet strawberries, and a thick garlicky puree of hummus with enough baby carrots to feed a rabbit army. I ate so much hummus as we crossed long stretches of highway and listened to Queen and the Indigo Girls and talked about things like slam poetry and what it was like to be a LGBT person in a tiny Iowa town. Every college kid has their “moment of truth”, and that was mine. I found my people. They were crunchy, kind, snarky, compassionate. And damn, that hummus was good.

I transferred from that college at the end of the year, but I still thought about hummus. I moved back to my hometown, and thought about hummus. I rented my first apartment with my high school best friend, and I thought about hummus. We set up our kitchen, and I made hummus.

I hadn’t cooked much of anything prior to this. I made toast and hot pockets and boiled eggs. I operated under my main high school assumption, which was, “I have friends/family who’ll do that for me.” I’m not proud of it, but at least I grew out of it. The allure of the hummus helped.

Of course, everyone thought I was nuts. What was this pureed chickpea thing? And what, pray tell, was tahini? “It’s sesame paste,” I said, parroting what Google had told me. This explanation didn’t help. Nobody knew what sesame paste was either.

Despite this, I made hummus in an old, rickety blender. I can still remember the exact recipe and cookbook I made it from: The Vegetarian Meat and Potatoes Cookbook by Robin Robertson. It was the only vegetarian cookbook I had access to in Braille then. I ate it with sliced cucumber and pita. The hardest parts were finding the pita and tahini, which my roommate patiently scoured the grocery store for, with me complaining the whole time, “You can see, why can’t you find it?”

Still, I think it was worth it. I actually credit said roommate and high school bff with helping me learn how to cook. She did explain some basics to me, but more than that, she let me figure things out for myself, which was what I really needed. And she was my taste tester and helped me eat all the leftovers. She helped me make my first loaf of bread, a cranberry-orange made with all white flour, canned cranberry sauce, and orange juice concentrate. It made our kitchen smell like Christmas in July.

I think I always had this idea that cooking was difficult, that at the very least I’d need to be able to see to accomplish anything more major than boiling pasta.  But, I’ve mostly proven myself wrong.  When a cookbook says to toast nuts until brown I hover around the oven and let my nose tease out the telltale golden notes signaling they are ready to come out.  When cooking eggs until the yolks no longer “look runny”, I rely on a slowing in the sizzling of the eggs and a very gentle poke with a spatula.  And, for those pesky “cook until heated through” instructions, I have been known to thrust my hand right into the pan for a (hopefully) hot second.  In the end, sometimes you can’t have something delicious without a few battle scars.

Summer is always my favorite time to cook and the time I have the most energy for it.  I could spend hours (and often do) on a Sunday churning ice cream, coaxing tight pea clusters from their pods, and stripping herbs from their fragrant branches.  My next goal, when I’m able, is to learn how to garden.  You never know: maybe someday blindie gardeners will grow the world.

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