Why Learning To Cook Was The Best Thing I Did For Myself In My 20s

Most importantly: food, delicious food.
PHOTO: Pixabay

I didn't start cooking until I had graduated from college; as a kid, the one attempt I made at playing around in the kitchen ended up making a disgusting gloopy mess in the microwave and my older brother practically laughed me out of the house. In my teens, I asked my cousin's wife, the one in my family with the best reputation as a cook, to teach me how to make her kimchi jjigae, which I liked better than anyone else's. She did the classic "throw in a little bit of this," "do what feels right" thing that terrifies and confuses anyone who doesn't have any experience, and I ran away from the stove for fear I'd fail the intuition test.

But once in my 20s, firmly established as an independent yet cash-poor person who couldn't be fed every day by a meal plan or a parent, I had to learn to cook.

Things did not go well at first. It took me awhile to figure out that it's best to read a recipe all the way through before attempting it for the first time at 7 on a weeknight. Not to mention I didn't have any technique — barely knew how to hold a knife without cutting myself. And getting something that tasted good at the end of that mess was always a pray-for-the-best scenario. Sometimes I ate instant ramen because it was easy, but you couldn't put it past me not to ruin that either. It's really hard to eyeball the right amount of water when you're first starting out.

I must have been 23 when I made Thanksgiving dinner with my friends. I cooked a rib roast instead of a turkey because that seemed easier. It was probably my first major success preparing something that tasted legitimately wonderful, and even if it might have been sheer luck and an easy recipe that made it happen, it was enough for me to keep at it.

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Endless hours I spent watching Ina Garten, Sunny Anderson, Mario Batali, and Nigella Lawson. I sat through hilarious but supremely helpful and comforting YouTube videos from a Korean home cook named Maangchi. I clipped hundreds of recipes from food magazines. I started building my cookbook collection. I took cooking classes and finally learned how to use a knife properly. I'd go to the farmers' market and try to do the thing where you buy the vegetables that speak to you and create something new and spectacular without using a recipe; I usually always bombed at that exercise. I subjected my friends and family to meals that were mostly fine, sometimes ridiculously tasty, and other times practically inedible.

I got better and more consistent. I could guess how good something was going to be based on the ingredient list. I could make a meal without relying on a recipe. Words like "confit" and "sous vide" no longer scared me. People would come over and tell stories the next day about what they'd eaten at my table.

Of course, that amazement was partly due to the fact that nobody cooks anymore. It's impressive when someone can put an appetizer and a main dish in front of you, and it's a meal made from scratch. Most people in America like to buy their meals prepared in some way; even if it's something purchased at the grocery store, we like our food to be ready to heat and eat right away. I know as well as anyone that life is work, work, work, with sleep built into the day somewhere, and the prospect of meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking when you're already exhausted can be daunting.

But what would my life be like without cooking? If all I could do was throw a palak paneer from Trader Joe's in the microwave or tap my phone a few times to get something delivered to my door? I would be without the immeasurable joy I find in going to the market and seeing fresh produce and feeling the hope of possibility: dinner in its nascent state, or maybe a future pie. I wouldn't be able to learn new recipes and techniques, or find out about rare seasonal ingredients. I wouldn't know the satisfaction of making something good and know that someone else really, truly enjoyed it. I wouldn't feel the peace and stress and happiness and comfort that cooking and eating the thing you made can bring.

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All this to say that I'm glad I learned to cook when I was in my 20s. It wasn't too late then and it wouldn't be too late now.

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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors. 

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