“My First Meal.” Sort of sounds like “The Last Supper,” which……. maybe it will be? We’ll see if my family continues to eat my cooking.
I started this website during a time of heavy transition. I’ll go into the details of how COVID-19 has upended our lives in a different post, but one of the “good” things that has come out of the global pandemic is that I’ve recommitted to doing things I’ve always liked, and to learning things I likely already should have known. One of those things is cooking!
I’ve cooked things. I’ve definitely put a few things into a pan before, mixed it together and called it a meal. But I’m not a “good cook” by any stretch of the imagination, and I tend to avoid cooking at all costs. The idea of cooking, I’ve discovered over the past few years, actually fills me with a sort of dread. “Will it taste good?” “Will anyone else like it?” And worst of all, the feeling of being confronted with a pretty simple fact while in the middle of cooking any meal: “I don’t know what I’m doing and this is quickly turning into a disaster!” It’s some weird form of performance anxiety, and I’m determined to come to terms with it, and to eventually conquer it.
I did not grow up cooking. It was never a skill set that I demonstrated any interest in developing, and it was never really thrust upon me. I think that, as a kid, I tended to crumble under pressure. So one of the following scenarios is likely to have happened:
- Somebody asked me if I wanted to cook and I said “no” and nobody pushed the issue, or
- Somebody tried to get me to cook and I found a way out of it, either by avoiding the task entirely or making an excuse to get out of it.
As an adult person, I continued to find ways out of cooking, no matter what the scenario. Here are some scenarios:
- While serving in AmeriCorps NCCC, a team-based volunteer program when I lived and traveled with 12 other people for a year, one of the expectations was that team members took responsibility for planning and cooking dinner on a rotating basis. I found a teammate to cook for me every single time my turn came around, with one exception: the time that a teammate and I made “chili” using every varietal of spicy pepper available at the local grocery store. The concoction literally burned the mouths of several of our teammates/victims and left me chugging milk along with the worst case of the hiccups I’ve ever had (I myself have an aversion to spicy food). After that I was never asked to cook again. So, in that way, my cooking was effective.
- I lived on an organic farm for several months. This farm had anything you could think of readily available to cook, and it was obviously fresh. You could pick it right out of the ground! Being isolated in the hills of Northern California, there was nothing to do after work except cook dinner. We weren’t going out anywhere. Despite the picturesque setting, an abundance of time, and resources at my disposal, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every night for dinner.
- I don’t even barbecue. Seriously.
“So what do you do nowadays, Matt?” You may be asking. And I’ll share with you the most shameful part of this. In our feminist, leftist, mostly-socialist and all-for-gender equality household, Emma cooks. I’m not going to qualify or otherwise condone this arrangement, and I’ve done about as much analysis into how this has come to be as I care to. The end result is, I’m going to learn how to cook.
I’ve been thinking about learning how to cook for a bit now, and COVID-19 has helped usher this along. I’ve recently taken on stay-at-home dad responsibilities so that Emma can focus on work and we don’t have to worry about sending our kids out into buildings we don’t yet know to be safe (more on this topic under the “Fatherhood” section of this site). As part of the deal, I told Emma that I’m going to learn how to cook. What follows is my first adventure.
“Recipes for Dads”
I literally typed “recipes for dads” into the search bar of my phone browser. I didn’t know what I would get in the results, but I had a pretty good idea. Probably a lot of recipes including meat, hopefully broken down into easy-to-understand and simple instructions. You know, like those sites that pander to the “awe shucks, men” demographic that I try not to be a part of but in this instance I am definitely a part of. I was surprised, then, to discover that none of the initial sites I came across were pandering at all. There were no assumptions made that men cannot cook. They assumed I was….capable. I’m not sure if I was disappointed or empowered by this revelation. The internet thinks I can do it! The internet knows that men can cook! Shit! I should know how to cook by now! I scrolled through a couple of recipes which seemed beyond my current skill level and then settled on this one, which was listed on a site called The Spruce Eats under the header “22 Quick and Easy Dinners for Busy Dads”:
A few things about me before I detail this travesty of a meal:
- I’m pretty good at things that I choose to do. I am a good writer. I am a good social worker. I am a good pool player. In the past, I’ve been good at other things as well. I have a perfectionist streak which makes it pretty impossible for me to not get at least decent at the things that I like to do.
- Like many perfectionists, I choose not to do things that either 1) I do not like to do, or 2) I am not good at doing after trying a few times. These categories are not mutually exclusive and one usually reinforces the other. It causes….problems.
So I start planning for this new meal by first telling Emma what it is, sharing the recipe and asking if we have most of what is necessary to make it. I then do something which I know will cause me anxiety later, but I’m a glutton for punishment: I substitute items. Recipe calls for pork chops? Let’s do chicken instead! Don’t have chicken broth? That’s OK, we’ll use that other stuff that I’ve already forgotten the name of! (edit: It’s Better than Bouillon) Do we even have Worcester sauce? Let’s maybe not even check! How do I know that this will cause me anxiety? Because when it comes to cooking, I’m not good at adapting yet. I’ll have to learn.
I begin cooking the meal by grabbing a pan I think will work. This part is difficult, because I don’t yet know how the meal comes together. Will everything fit in the pan? Am I going to have to put some food on top of other food? I see the recipe calls for a sauce later that I’ll make in the same pan, but what do I do with the food I’ve cooked beforehand? It’s all rudimentary, but that’s where I’m at for now.
I turn the burner on medium-high heat and wait for it to warm up a bit. I realize that I haven’t opened the chicken yet, so I start to take care of that. While doing so, I realize that I don’t have anything to put the chicken in before putting it in the pan. I take out a bowl and commence thinking about all the ways I’ll be responsible for my entire family getting salmonella. The oil is heated so I start putting the chicken in. It starts frying, which I think is a good thing for it to be doing. Emma passes by and points out that I can’t fit all of the chicken into the pan.
This is a glitch. How do I cook all of the chicken at different times? The recipe says that I cook the chicken and then put the garlic and onions in. Do I cook the 2 parts of chicken and THEN put the garlic and onions in? Or do I cook part 1 of the chicken, add the garlic and onions, and then cook part 2 of the chicken? I decide on option 2 and then imagine how sick my family will be from salmonella and I hope it doesn’t leave us at greater risk of catching COVID. It’s not a productive thought, so instead I freak out about how I’ve already put all of the chicken in the pan and HOW CAN I FIX THIS? It’s very productive.
I take two of the pieces of chicken out of the pan and place them back in the bowl that they originally came from. I briefly wonder if this will increase the likelihood of the aforementioned salmonella transmission, but I put it out of my mind because there’s chicken to cook. I continue to follow the timing on the recipe despite knowing that I’ve switched chicken in for pork and the timing is likely different. I flip the chicken and it looks slightly burnt on the bottom. I think “it may look burnt on the bottom but maybe it’s not cooked through,” so I flip it back for a while longer. After I can smell that it’s sufficiently burnt, I flip it to cook on the other side.
I throw in a bunch of red bell pepper that I’ve sliced into strips as instructed. I wonder how the pepper is going to cook alongside the chicken when the chicken is already good and burnt and the pepper is just getting started. I put the thought out of my mind because I just need to get through this. Meanwhile, my younger daughter is under me asking for some leftover pepper. I give her some, wondering how sick she’ll be from salmonella if she eats that, despite it never going near the chicken. Then my older daughter comes over and is asking for pepper too. Instead of relocating the pepper to a location where they can both reach it, I let them visit and revisit the area around the stove, while complaining to Emma that they keep coming over. I’m doing great.
The chicken and the pepper both look “cooked.” I discover that my definition of “cooked” today means slightly charred. I feel bad because I’ve cooked both of these things effectively in the past. But today is a new day! Today I begin to learn how to cook!
Now comes the time when I “make the sauce”. I believe I mentioned earlier that we did not have Worcester sauce. I ask Emma if I can substitute barbecue sauce. No. That’s not a good idea. Emma hands me soy sauce and white vinegar and says to mix it with the bouillon. This is where I figure I can just throw some of the Better than Bouillon into the pan and then follow it by pouring in a healthy amount of soy sauce and white vinegar. I do that 2-3 times and start wondering why a “sauce” isn’t forming. I start wondering why there’s “nothing in the pan.” It’s all just sort of….evaporating, so I do the sensible thing: I give up.
For today, my first meal, I made my beautiful family burnt chicken and bell pepper. When I brought it into the dining room, I noticed the entire house was full of smoke. Emma opened a window and we commenced eating.
- Emma – The chicken is good!
- Older daughter – Where is the rest of dinner? This is just chicken and peppers.
- Younger daughter – Eats her entire meal, asks for more chicken.
- Dad – Eats entire meal, admits chicken is pretty good, but only to himself. Looks sad.
On the whole a disappointing but not entirely discouraging meal! I’ve definitely cooked better in the past. The substitutions threw me off and I let it get the better of me. With that said, this is obviously a really low baseline. You now have an idea of who you’re dealing with. I need to learn how to make a really basic sauce, and I have a friend who has offered to teach me how to make red sauce. I figure that will be a good, basic, concrete skill that will apply to several recipes. So I’m going to take him up on that.
Until next time!