When a person at a family event asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say “cook,” my mother invariably chimes in with this story before I can get a word in edgewise:
When I was thirteen, I called my mother at work one day in utter desperation. While trying to make Easy-Mac, I found that the contents would not fit into a normal-sized bowl and kept spilling onto the floor. Once I managed to place the bowl, packed precariously with its contents, into the microwave, the water overflowed as soon it started to boil.
“Well, read me the instructions.”
“Combine in a microwave-safe bowl one packet of noodles and three out of four cups of water.”
“Three out of four cups of water? Do you mean three-fourths cup of water?”
“What’s the difference?”
Yes, I was thirteen at the time, and this was, embarrassingly, my first foray into the kitchen. My mother was a dietician and a helicopter parent—a dangerous combination. Food was mainly purchased and cooked for me and my siblings because she had specific ideas about what food we should eat and how it should be prepared. Salt and egg yolks were a no-no: after all, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in America. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized eggs could be purchased in shells and not out of a carton marked “egg whites.”
My incompetence in the kitchen resulted in countless embarrassing moments. At 14, newly inspired by a babysitting class I took at the Y, I offered my services to families in my neighborhood. My joy at landing my first gig faded when my charges asked me to prepare hotdogs for lunch. I once again frantically called my mother for advice.
“Just boil them,” she said.
The ten year old and seven year old looked on quizzically as I dropped the processed meat into the pot with a splash and recoiled at the spray. Frying them was the right answer. I chose wrong.
“Aren’t we having anything with them?” they asked. I let out an exasperated breath of air.
Needless to say, I wasn’t hired again. No one wants a babysitter who make soggy hotdogs.
My mother claims either the Easy-Mac debacle or the hot dog incident as the emblematic story of my relationship with cooking. In my mind, it’s a tapestry of moments: first, my junior year of college. On our first night outside of the dorms, I realized I did not know how to cook. And by cook, I don’t just mean sear a piece of meat or prepare a casserole—I mean I didn’t know how to boil pasta. I surreptitiously followed my roommate, Molly, downstairs at dinnertime under the guise of conversation, but really, I studied how she filled a pot with water, waited for it to boil, cracked the long strands of spaghetti into the pot, set a timer, and drained the noodles. She added a combination of Kraft grated parmesan cheese and cheap Kroger butter to the heaping plate of carbs and offered me some. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious. Of course, it was only later that I learned that parmesan cheese did not always come out of a green plastic can. That rocked my world, too.
I picked up other habits from roommates. From my roommate in graduate school, I learned how to make scrambled eggs, cut an avocado, and layer lasagna without a recipe. Yet, none of those felt representative of my relationship with cooking. It was just a necessary step for survival, and if given the chance, I would always choose to have someone prepare food for me rather than to make it myself. I’d stock up carrots, celery, and bell peppers for the week only to watch them slowly rot away in my fridge. As they grew green fuzz, I would shut them in a drawer out of sight; as they turned black and soft, I avoided opening the door at all out of embarrassment; once they shriveled up and started smelling, I armed myself with gloves and paper towels to dispose of my good intentions.
A new cooking narrative began when I started dating my now-husband. Neither of us had much skill or experience. Brent had a kitchen about the size of my thumb and was gifted a recipe book called Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen, whose stiff binding revealed that it had never even been cracked open. He was still in the “Help” stage, not the stage where you admit you have a kitchen.
I remember distinctly the first meal Brent and I cooked together for Valentine’s Day of 2013, a day we fondly remember as the moment we fell in love with crockpots. We rounded up my small Rival crockpot and the ancient one he inherited from his grandparents, which had a piece of masking tape on the bottom marking its arrival in this world—“Purchased from Shop-Ko, March 1, 1997.” That day we embarked on a labor of love. One crockpot was for short ribs smothered in a homemade glaze consisting of sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, ketchup, and Worcestershire. After they marinated in that goodness for an hour, we caramelized them in the oven for twenty minutes to give them a delicious crunch. In the second crockpot was a molten chocolate pudding that bubbled to perfection. By candlelight, we devoured that meal at Brent’s small kitchen table, sauce streaming down our chins and covering our hands, chocolate staining our nice clothes. Yet, I don’t think we ever felt more in love—with each other and with the food we knew we would create in our lives together. We had brought together two crockpots in a new partnership, much in the same way we brought together our ineptness surrounding food.
As we scrambled to write our way out of graduate school, we simultaneously learned to cook. It made us feel like the adults we knew we should be. If we couldn’t produce pages that day, at least we could manage to feed ourselves. We learned how we liked vegetables—roasted, always and forever. We discovered how to update our favorite childhood foods—meatloaf, for him; mac-and-cheese, for me. We had some failures. Brent and I would get easily frustrated and depressed when our stainless steel pans would burn, when our chicken was still pink inside after we sautéed it like the recipe said, and when we had been cooking for three hours even though Rachel Ray assured us that we could complete it in 30 minutes. One time, I got a desperate call from Brent: while making dinner, he had cut off the tip of his finger on the food processor. It’s still sensitive three years later.
But amid the struggles, there were also sparks of success. The croquettes Brent cooked for my Dirty Thirty party were all burnt except one, and that one was delicious. A golden crispy shell with potato and cheese oozing out from the center, dipped in a garlic aioli that was just the right amount of tangy. A Dutch oven full of jambalaya that took an entire Saturday to make, but that you could eat for eternity without getting even the least bit tired of it.
My relationship with cooking is not a linear path, but one that is full of zig-zags. Now Brent works full time and I am cobbling together part-time gigs, making me the one who should bear the greater share of the housework. Where I thrived on cooking because it represented a time of community with my partner, now, alone and without a dishwasher, the task of dicing, cooking, and washing seems insurmountable. I fear that I am becoming more like my mother every day, telling people what they can eat and how, pretending like food preparation is magical while concealing the hours of labor.
It feels like I’m refashioning myself as a cook all over again to help me understand this phase of my life. Sustaining myself physically has reminded me of my duty to steward my mental and emotional health. I’ve found creativity and passion again in experimenting with preparing satisfying plant-based meals. I have spent hours tracking down produce such as leeks, bok choy, beets, and celery root in Indiana grocery stores, which apparently see these foods as “exotic.” I bought tofu for the first time a few weeks ago, debating for a good twenty minutes in the aisles the difference between firm and extra firm. I was asked five times by a nervous teenage worker if I needed help. I said “no” every time, even though the honest answer was “yes.” It’s a series of challenges, but when I taste that crisp tofu over a bowl of warm spaghetti squash and covered in a chili-lime vinaigrette, when Brent says “mmm” with a sound only heard in the dead of winter when your belly feels warm and full, I am appreciative of this new beginning.
Each of these moments in my life is a snapshot of my relationship with food. Individually, none of them are representative of myself as a cook, but together they are maps of self awakenings, thresholds where I evolved from one Annmarie to another. Maybe I was, for a second, that person who did not know how to cook an already-cooked hotdog, but more importantly, I was a person who had to reckon with my inability to fulfill my most basic need—feeding myself and those around me. It was also a threshold where I could admit that maybe I didn’t want to take on the babysitter mantle that so many teenage girls did, and maybe I never wanted to take on the mother one either. As I become something different so does my relationship to food. I relearned my ways within a kitchen as I graduated from college student to graduate student to freelancer, from teenager to single twenty-something to married thirty-something. Neither my food, my kitchen space, nor I stay the same. It’s an endless series of firsts.
And yet, it’s also not. As a teacher by trade, I have learned that teaching is 90% resting on the shoulders of those who have come before you, and so is cooking. I am not an origin myself, but I am a collection of others’ origins. I’m not reinventing the wheel or stumbling blindly through the kitchen, a potato masher in one hand and a vegetable peeler in the other. I have a cooking history, but I rely on others’ cooking wisdom, from my grandmother to my roommate to Julia Childs. Traced into my hands is the muscle memory of grating potatoes for latkes, drilled into me by my Polish grandparents who no doubt were taught by their parents and them by their parents. I have beginnings, but all those beginnings are also continuations. If I am unable to correctly measure water, that rests on my mother—at least, that’s how I will I defend myself to her at the next family gathering.
Annmarie and Brent’s Short Ribs of True Love (adapted from The Girl Who Ate Everything)
4 lbs. pork baby back ribs
Salt and pepper
2 c. BBQ sauce (We prefer the upscale Aldi one that has no high fructose corn syrup. You also can’t go wrong with Sweet Baby Ray’s.)
1 c. ketchup
½ c. brown sugar
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp oregano
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Season ribs with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder in any proportions. Put more than you think you need because the slow cooker dulls flavors. Bake for 15 minutes on one side. Flip and bake for 15 more minutes.
- Combine all sauce ingredients.
- Place ribs in a slow cooker. You will probably need to jam them in if you have an ancient, tiny slow cooker like ours. Don’t be afraid to break them apart and push them into the crevices. Pour the sauce over them and cook on low for 6-8 hours. The longer the better. If you have a long day at work, they’ll taste even better.
- You can skip this step but only at your own peril. To create a caramelized exterior to your ribs, put them back into the oven for 15 minutes at 400. Then include some leftover BBQ sauce or ketchup to dip your ribs in. Scrumptious.
Annmarie Steffes enjoys culinary vacations and especially fresh oysters. She has published literary criticism on Victorian verse drama, adapted plays for performance, and written children’s drama. Over the years, she has been a jack of all trades, but right now, she is an assistant professor at the University of Saint Francis in Indiana, where she teaches literature and writing.