Girl Talk: How I Learned To Cook

I didn’t learn how to cook growing up. It’s not that my mom and dad didn’t know how to cook themselves; they’re both quite good cooks, actually. Dad makes a mean spaghetti sauce and I’ve planned entire weekends around Mom’s French onion soup, endive salad, and eggplant parm. But both of them are, and always have been, so absurdly territorial in the kitchen that I never much felt welcome. There’s many times I’ve tried to help out and perhaps pick something up, and gotten shooed away.

So I stopped trying. I cultivated indifference. I sat back while they cooked real meals for me well into adulthood. Whatever meals I cooked for myself were not real meals — in fact, I don’t know if you could say I “cooked” them. All throughout college and after college, I ate the kind of “instant meals” that American grocery stores are known for: macaroni and cheese, instant rice, ramen noodles, pasta sauce out of a jar. Maybe if I was getting fancy, I’d make a salad or scrambled eggs.  

When I started dating Ex-Mr. Jessica, he was horrified by what I called “cooking.” He refused to eat instant rice or mac and cheese from a box because it sounded disgusting, he said. I thought he was overreacting slightly — I mean, I had eaten this kind of stuff every day for years. But as I grew to know him, I saw he prepared almost all of his meals with fresh vegetables and meat and he ate different meals all the time. He wasn’t being a snob (i.e. a “foodie”); he truly ate tastier and more healthful food than I did and I felt ashamed. On our second date, he cooked me dinner. He asked me to make a salad and the fact that I didn’t know how to prepare the vegetables made me especially embarrassed.

I didn’t have much reason to take up cooking, though. In the first couple months that we dated, he wooed me with food. (The way to my heart? It’s through my stomach.) And when we moved in together after three months, we made an agreement about chores: he would do all the cooking, I would do all the dishwashing and all the laundry.  He genuinely loved cooking and I genuinely liked washing dishes and doing laundry (I’m weird, I know), so this agreement worked for us. 

Yet in the two years that we lived together, I learned some basicas about cooking through osmosis with him, the way I wish I had with my parents when I was a kid.  I felt more confident in the kitchen myself, because he made cooking seem so stress-free and easy.  A few times, I was inspired to cook Ex-Mr. Jessica dinner — real meals, not my instant rice stuff — and those were the first times in my life I’d ever really, really cooked before. 

A year passed. We started to approach two years. Christmas came and I had gotten him the best present that I could find: a set of seven never-used and gently-used copper pots for about $200. A copper pot, as you know if you’ve ever stepped foot inside a William-Sonoma, costs an arm and a leg. This woman was selling seven of them. I bought them immediately for Ex-Mr. Jessica and shipped them to my parents’ house to hide them. It was one of those Christmases when I knew I had the most amazing gift to give and I just couldn’t wait to watch him open them.

And when he did, when I saw how happy they made him, it was the happiest I had ever felt giving a gift. But everything fell apart right after Christmas — literally, right after Christmas — and he dumped me over the phone a couple days after New Year’s. How it all went down, I don’t need to recount here. Suffice it to say, there was another girl that I discovered and lots of hurt feelings and unkindness and nastiness in the aftermath. I was absolutely gobsmacked by the decpetion and so horribly hurt and confused.

But one thing I was sure about — absolutely, positively sure about — was that I didn’t want him to have those pots and pans anymore. I didn’t want him taking pleasure in this gift I had given him as a sign of love. I didn’t want him cooking meals for the new girl — or any girl — with this gift I had given him as a sign of love. I didn’t want him to have a sign of love from me at all. I was so livid and injured I would have taken the paint off the walls in our bedroom to spite him if I could have.

So I took the copper pots back. When my sister helped me move out of Ex-Mr. Jessica’s and my apartment, we packed up the six that we could find, leaving only one saucepan behind. I knew it wasn’t very nice — especially since I kept his Christmas present to me, too — but it felt fair. I felt like he didn’t deserve such a nice Christmas present anymore. And when you’ve been treated really unfairly, even cruelly, you’ll do anything you can to Robin Hood yourself a sense of justice.

After the breakup, I had no choice but to move back into my Mom and Dad’s house in suburban Connecticut. I had no savings and owned no furniture (because I’d gotten rid of what I owned when we’d shacked up). Being suddenly marooned in the suburbs in the middle of January blizzards sucked. Alas, it’s probably good that I did move back in with them, because I was coo-coo bananas for months. I cried every day and even when I didn’t cry every day, I cried at inappropriate times. I was a mess with an empty bank account and no bedsheets to call my own. 

I did have, though, a set of copper pots and pans. When I’d packed them up while moving out, they had  symbolized him and something I could do to hurt him. But to my mom, they were amazing cookware that she wanted to use. She kvelled about the faster cooking times, the smoother heating. And because I really, truly didn’t have anything better to do during the dark, cold winter months of January, February and March out in the boonies, I used them myself and essentially taught myself to cook. 

I started with recipes I ripped out of magazines: Morroccan eggplant, frittatas, and eggplant parm lasagna. I moved on to Epicurious recipes and recipes from cookbooks: chickpea casserole and lamb meatballs with dates and lemon/cucumber yogurt dipping sauce. I cooked the same dishes over and over again, so I could perfect them. Mom and Dad were honest about the dishes: less spices in this one, more spices in that one, oh my god those chickpeas are bland. Cooking for my parents made me feel better about not paying rent: I was contributing to the household in some way, a tangible way that brought us together in the evening to enjoy. For my 27th birthday, my sister gave me a gift certificate to Crate + Barrel and I bought myself The Joy Of Cooking.

To be honest, there was an ulterior motive in learning to cook — and it wasn’t just to pass the time when I was going crazy or to enjoy the pots so he couldn’t. When Ex-Mr. Jessica dumped me, he sent me a douchebag email with a list of 10 reasons why he didn’t want to be with me anymore. Some of the reasons were mean, like him saying he wanted to be with a woman who wore cuter clothes. (As if!) Some of the reasons were stupid, like he wanted to be with someone who played board games. (Uh, okay.) Some of the reasons were hypocritical, like he wanted to be with someone who had the same earning potential that he did, even though the entire time we’d been dating I had earned more money than him. (Remember that part where I mentioned I had no savings?) But the reason that stuck in my craw the most, the one that really hurt, was that he wanted to be with someone who cooked all the time. Yes. He wrote that. He wrote that despite the fact that not once while we had been dating had he said he wanted to reconfigure our agreement about chores; he had never suggested he take over, say, the laundry and I cook. If I had known any of that when we were dating — if he had communicated it to me — then maybe I would have learned to cook — better, sooner — and done it more often.

I did learn to cook. I did cook all the time. I just did it after we broke up.  Was I resolving some kind of issue I had? Was I trying to prove him wrong? I suppose so, but I don’t know what that information means — other than redemption narratives can have a silver lining. When I moved out of my parents’ house and back into an apartment of my own, I brought Ex-Mr. Jessica’s copper pots  with me. I use them all the time — so often that I don’t even associate him or his name anymore when I pull them out. They’re not really his pots anymore; now they are mine.

I have a new boyfriend now and I cook him dinner every weekend. I do it not because I feel like I have to in order to keep him happy, but because I want to cook now. I know how to do it well (or so he says) and I genuinely enjoy it. It’s calming and empowering and a pleasantly domestic happiness in my otherwise digitized life.

I wish this whole story was not the way that I learned how to cook. But, alas, it’s the way it happened.  So. Who’s hungry?

Contact the author of this post at [email protected] Follow me at @JessicaWakeman.