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
Updated January 26, 2010
Justin Bernhaut

“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). In my mother’s defense, she managed to put a hot meal on the table every night while holding down a full-time job as a first-grade teacher. And she was able to laugh at herself: She used to compare her cooking to that of John Cusack’s mom’s in Better Off Dead; the food his mother prepared was so insulted that it actually walked off its plate. Still, I had no idea that years of playfully criticizing my mother’s efforts would develop into feelings of inadequacy about my own cooking―and, worse, render me practically paralyzed in terms of making anything other than a single dish.

A few years ago, I was sitting in my weekly therapy session, running through a litany of complaints, when my therapist stopped me midsentence: “What’s in your refrigerator?” she asked.

“Huh?” I responded.

“Food is love,” she said, in her calm, beatific way. “You have to fill up your refrigerator if you want your life to change. So what’s in there?”

I frowned, embarrassed, as I ran through its contents: “Butter…mustard…nail polish.” My therapist wrote something down on a piece of paper and tore it off as if handing me a prescription: “I want you to take a cooking class,” she said. “In the meantime, fill up your fridge.”

Now, I had never made a connection between food and love before, for one simple reason―my mother didn’t express love that way. Cooking and eating, she felt, were purely functional, something you did in order to stay alive. (She even once joked that she could happily go through life on a daily sustenance pill.)

Don’t get me wrong, my mother showed her love for her family in a million different ways. I remember sitting with her for hours at the piano while she patiently taught me how to play. She translated all my children’s books into Spanish so I could converse about them with my grandmother. Over the years, she allowed me to keep a dog, cat, rabbit, parakeet, hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, and rat as pets. Now, that was love. But cooking? For her, not so much.

Over the next few weeks, I made a few visits to my local farmers’ market, then watched in frustration as the food I had bought spoiled and turned brown. “I’m single―I can’t eat that much!” I wailed to my therapist. “Keep stocking your fridge,” she repeated. “Food is love.” The class I signed up for was called “Fine Cooking 1,” and it taught the fundamentals of French cooking. The first day of class, the chef gave us an introduction to the course and asked us to split into groups of four. We were instructed to prepare a salad and sautéed lamb chops with leeks. I don’t remember the rest of what was said; I think I went into a fugue state. There was a mad scramble to find the ingredients hidden around the vast professional chef’s kitchen, outfitted with the latest stainless-steel appliances and countertops. My teammates quickly got to work―turns out, they weren’t at all confused―while I merely hovered around the room, from time to time opening and closing a cupboard so I would look like I was doing something. I didn’t know what a leek looked like. I had no idea which piece of raw meat was lamb, let alone a chop. I burst into tears.

A flurry of people gathered around me, led by the chef. He took me aside and carefully walked me through the steps. Because of his sensitivity to my predicament, I returned to the class week after week until I graduated. By then I had prepared mussels in white wine, osso buco so tender it was falling off the bone, even a cheese soufflé.

You’d think I would try out these foods at home, but nooooo―back in the safety of my own apartment, I continued to make Laurie’s Now-Infamous Lemon Chicken. I wasn’t ready to put my newfound skill into action.

And yet, a few months after the class ended, something changed: I started to comprehend how much food I needed in my refrigerator in order to keep it stocked without being wasteful. I began to expand my palate beyond poultry; I went from refusing to touch fish to eating sushi for breakfast. And I came to realize that growing up with my mother’s cooking had bestowed some culinary gifts I had never truly acknowledged. I’m the favorite dinner guest of many of my friends because I will eat anything―even if they forgot to turn off the oven and are serving blackened apple pie. I have a real appreciation for crappy meals: I often crave Sloppy Joes and Hamburger Helper. And I’ve learned to laugh at my own mistakes in the kitchen rather than rigidly freezing up after each one.

Obviously, I haven’t become a gourmet chef. But it’s empowering to feel as if I am able to nourish others―and myself. I’ve discovered that through cooking I can show profound caring and, yes, love in a way that pizza delivery―even from that really good brick-oven place―just cannot match.

A month ago, when I had guests, I did something I never would have thought possible a few years ago. I tried out a new recipe: Creamy Cilantro and Almond Soup. It was a hit. Last week I prepared lasagna Bolognese. This coming Passover, I’m planning to contribute a beef brisket to the family Seder. Baby-carrot steps. And if I want to prepare lemon chicken again at some point in the future, I will―it’s tasty, after all, and a tribute to my mother. Or so she tells me.