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A Stirring Tale

For many, the stove beckons like no other place. For others, it’s a dismal reminder of a lifetime of culinary disappointment. Here, how one woman learned to cook―and care―for herself.

By Laurie Sandell
Cooking pasta in a panJustin Bernhaut

RealSimple.com

“Do you cook?” a guy once asked me on a first date. Minutes earlier I’d been twirling my straw in my glass, feeling coquettish; suddenly I was scrambling for a way to respond. Did it count as cooking if I made the same thing every night? As long as I could remember, every single time I’d prepared dinner for myself―and I mean every single time without fail―I trotted out the same dish: chicken breast in lemon sauce with a side of kale or broccoli and instant rice. I found sitting down to eat this meal night after night less depressing than ordering in all the time, but I can’t say I had ever been excited about the experience of “cooking.” I used the same type of chicken (an organic boneless breast), same preparation of the greens (steamed or sautéed with garlic), same brand of rice, same sad arrangement on the plate. I never deviated. I never experimented. I never added a pinch of this or that. Even when I had guests, I served them this meal, which I would have called “Laurie’s Famous Lemon Chicken,” but I didn’t want to call attention to the thing that made it famous.
 
For years I was terrified of cooking. I saw it as a mysterious and complex craft, like origami or classical guitar―available only to people born with a gift or those who had put in years of study. The idea that anyone could learn to cook seemed impossible, since the people I knew who liked to do it rhapsodized about their mothers’ “heavenly sauces” and ability to prepare food “better than any restaurant.”
 
My own mother’s cooking was terrible, or so went the family joke: Her meat loaf was dry, her broccoli overcooked, her salads wilted. She liked to prepare Steak-umms, that staple food of the 80s, on a small plug-in grill―an electrical fire waiting to happen. Then she would serve the tissue-thin, gray meat with instant mashed potatoes, activating every gag reflex in the room. Another specialty of hers was frozen ravioli that came in perforated sheets, cooked so long they oozed processed cheese from their shapeless, bloated bodies. Sometimes we ate “Baba Burgers,” a mixture of hamburger meat and sautéed onions, so named for my Argentinean grandmother―delicious when my father prepared them, but in my mother’s hands, they cooked down like Shrinky Dinks into black, onion-studded hockey pucks.
 
Perhaps not surprisingly, my mother’s go-to dish was chicken, served so often we called it Chicken à la Monday, Chicken à la Tuesday, and so on through the end of the week. She either made it cacciatore-style, with a sauce that tasted unnervingly like ketchup, roasted it so long in the oven that it turned into jerky, or poured on a thin “orange sauce” (love that Minute Maid).
 
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