How I Learned to Cook

Blame it on the MIT Food Service.

For my first two undergraduate years I ate my meals in the dining room in my dorm, MacGregor House. I had a book of “points” — tickets I turned in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The points could be used in any dining hall, but MacGregor was my preference because it was just downstairs from my room, and because it was the newest of the dining facilities.

The MIT Food Service was a separate department on campus; they had their own staff of nutritionists, menu planners, and cooks. As a result, the quality standard was higher than that provided by corporate behemoths like Aramark or U.S. Foodservices. We knew we were better off than the Harvard students, whose stories about their awful food were legendary: “Each dining hall has two vats, one full of meat, the other full of vegetables. One vat has green stuff, and the other has brown stuff. Unfortunately, the green stuff is the meat and the brown stuff is the vegetables.”

I had brown-bagged lunch through most of high school, so I had limited experience with institutional food. What MIT served seemed adequate. I understood that taste and presentation were occasionally sacrificed in the name of efficiency and scale, but I could live off the stuff. I avoided anything remotely “Italian,” knowing it wouldn’t taste anything like what my mother cooked. As for the rest, since they served meals I never had at home, I had no baseline for comparison.

Then I made the mistake of getting a job in the dining hall. I worked on the serving line, shoveling food onto friends’ plates. I cleaned the dining room when service was over. I also broke down the serving line, bringing unused food back into the kitchen to either be disposed of or saved. That’s when I learned how often food was reheated and re-served, sometimes two or three times.

I also learned how food was cooked for 500 diners at three services a day. Sauce was cooked in giant steam kettles, stirred with what looked like stainless steel canoe paddles. Frozen vegetables were heated in huge steam ovens that looked like the autoclaves in my cell biology lab. Everything was baked or steamed — I don’t remember seeing a grill or a stove in use.

It was all to much. I returned home the summer of my sophomore year determined to change what I ate and how it was prepared: I would learn to cook — how hard could it be?

I spent the summer at my mother’s elbow for every dinner she prepared. I asked countless questions: How much salt did you add? Why are you mixing it that way? How small do I chop this? The hardest question was always “Do you have the recipe written down?,” because the answer was usually “no.” Mom learned to cook from her mother, who learned to cook from her sisters, etc. Nothing was written down, there were no measurements more precise than “a pinch of this” and “a handful of that.” Baked goods were the only exception, since precise recipes were required to get good results.

About halfway through that summer Mom let me help her in the kitchen. (It was either that or stab me to shut me up.) By the end of my apprenticeship I had prepared a few family dinners that were deemed acceptable. Most importantly, Mom taught me how to make tomato sauce.

Before returning to MIT in the fall of 1979, I took a third of the money I had set aside for my meal plan and purchased some kitchenware: a set of RevereWare copper-bottomed pots (a choice I regret to this day — cleaning then is a bitch), a Sabatier 6″ chef’s knife, a wooden spoon, slotted spoon, and spatula, and a steamer basket. I bought two cookbooks: The Joy of Cooking (the 2-volume paperback set published in 1975) and The French Chef Cookbook. The rest of the money would be divided between dining hall points for breakfast and lunch on weekdays, and money for dinner ingredients.

I was ready to apply my newfound knowledge (and courage) to my cooking project, which would take place in my suite’s tiny kitchenette, quipped with a four-burner electric cooktop, a microwave oven, a sink, and a refrigerator. There was no real oven, which was eventually remedied with a birthday gift of a toaster oven. I bought some basics for the fridge (eggs, butter, chicken) and some basics for the pantry (spices, flour, sugar. oil).

To keep myself honest, I made some rules:

  1. Learn at least one new recipe every week.
  2. Eat all the leftovers.
  3. If you ruin a dish, you still have to eat it. Burnt or improperly seasoned food is a powerful motivator to improve.
  4. No hot dogs, hamburgers, mac & cheese, or ramen noodles. Canned soup was permitted if you are sick.
  5. You may only eat the free pizza one of the two nights a week it is brought in for the editors at the school newspaper.
  6. Clean up after yourself. There’s not enough room in the postage-stamp-sized kitchen for more than a few dirty pots.

I ate a lot of burnt food the first two weeks while I learned the temperature control differences between Mom’s gas stove and the electric cooktop. I ate a lot of chicken, running through the variations presented in Joy. But I slowly improved, and by December I tried one of Julia Child’s recipes. Things progressed to the point where my suitemates were offering to buy stuff for dinner if I would cook it for them.

In January, a friend and I taught a class for IAP (Independent Activities Period): “How to Cook for Company.” We bluffed our way through a boeuf bourguignon recipe cobbled together and scaled up from both Julia and Joy. It was such a success we were asked to teach a second class two weeks later.

I was at best an amatuer cook, but I was no longer intimidated by cooking. It would be years before I learned the difference between techniques and recipes, but I knew that I would improve with practice.

It’s been thirty years since I began the cooking project. I still have the Sabatier knife, although the blade is a bit thinner from years of honing,  and I still have some of the RevereWare pots, although the bottoms haven’t been polished in months. I’m no chef, but I can definitely cook.

Mom called today to ask for advice on planning the big Easter Sunday family dinner. Cannelloni, roast pork, and all the trimmings for thirty people — I could really use a few steam kettles and wall ovens.

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