Every superhero has an origin story.
My superpowers reside in the kitchen. I am not going to put on false humility about it: I am a great cook and baker. Are there people who are better? Absolutely, and I am not going to be joining any competition shows because I know there are plenty of people who are better than me. But I am good.
Growing up, cooking and baking was an act of love for my mother. Every meal contained a lot of passion, care, and flavor. Seeing her work in the kitchen was inspiring and made me want to be like her. When I grew up, I wanted to have a family tied together by my cooking just like we were with hers.
What follows is my introduction to the art of cooking (& baking) and how I fell in love with it as a hobby.
A Childhood Introduction
My childhood home was centered around the kitchen as the main gathering place – for eating, cleaning, and chatting. Many hours were spent there – most of the time with my mom working and me just watching her prep, assemble, and make. I would stand behind the stove and chat about my day at school while she made dinner or dessert.
I absorbed all that she did while I watched her work. Many times I was asked to stir something while she moved onto the next step and other times I felt comfortable enough to ask her questions: how can you tell the candy is ready? why does the temperature of the oven matter? what does a clean knife mean after inserting it into the cake?
I never saw her get discouraged in her work. Frustrated, yes. But not discouraged. If a dish didn’t work out quite like she wanted, she never threw in the towel. She would look over the recipe and realize that most of the time it was written badly. Her cookbooks are littered with marginalia to direct her future self on how to make the recipe a success.
I didn’t stay on the sidelines either. My real introduction occurred when my mom had me help her as a toddler, with my first project using cookie cutters for a batch of Christmas sugar cookies. I would press the cutter into the dough and many times the dough would come out with the cutter, stuck. I would pull this dough out of the cutter and pop it into my mouth. I think out of a potential batch of 24 cookies, we successfully made 18. It was my earliest experience as a quality control tester as well.
We lived in a rural enough area that county fairs were a thing in my childhood. My mom encouraged me to enter a children’s baking contest one summer. It was sponsored by a local flour company with a pre-selected recipe: Banana Muffins with Streusel Topping. I couldn’t deviate from the recipe, but how I made the dessert would make all the difference. It was a wonderful challenge for a child: you are given set conditions but through critical thinking, trial-and-error, and improvisation could you create a baked good that stood out from the rest.
I followed the recipe religiously to figure out what it would taste like and how it needed to look. Then I began to experiment and think about what I liked from other dessert recipes: sifting flour, adding one egg at a time, melting the butter a little more than the recipe required. My dad’s workplace benefited with each batch I tried because we were overloaded with my attempts at home.
I finally came up with a muffin I was ready to enter in the county fair. I had stiff competition, about 5 other kids. But only one would win and go on to State level.
When we entered the barn to see the results of the competition, I found my muffins and a nice blue ribbon beside it. I won first place and would move forward to the State. Thus restarted the whole trial-and-error process. I took the notes I received and tried to find more ways to improve my recipe.
For about a year or two afterward I could make the recipe from memory, that’s how many times I made these muffins.
I chose brown bananas, sometimes bruising them ahead of time to speed the sugar process along. More sifting, more crumbling for even crumbles, dropping the perfect amount of batter in the cups… and off to State I went. I placed in the top 5 overall, winning a nice apron branded by the flour sponsors. It was so big I had to wait until adulthood to use it.
I still have it today.
That competition was a wonderful experience that proved to me I knew what I was doing in the kitchen. The excitement of experimentation, the thrill of competition, and the validation of winning. I may not have placed first in the state, but I was state-worthy for that year.
While living at home I would continue to make desserts, meals, and experiment with food as much as possible. Sometimes I would be successful and other times I had to scrub a scorched pan. But never was I discouraged by my failures or my parents. Each failure was guided as a learning opportunity for success the next time around.
Working in the kitchen is one of the few places where when I fail, I am not discouraged. Sometimes I fail up, which I love. I intend to make one dish, but end up with a mutant dish that tastes equally delicious. It all comes from watching my mom and the confidence she projected with her cooking when I spent time in the kitchen with her as a child. Watching how she responded to her cooking “misses” informed me how to respond to mine.
Making it on my Own
When it came time to move out for college, making meals was now my responsibility. My first year away required me to eat solely from the food hall nor did my dorm have an accessible kitchen. My second year in a new dorm found us next to the floor kitchen, so I had the ability to make more dishes.
I was also a vegan.
Being a vegan back when it was starting to gain traction in college food halls was slightly difficult. There still weren’t many options, but there were some. If I wanted to eat the same thing every day, I would be fine. But I hate boring dishes, so I had to learn to make simple yet tasty dishes for myself to augment the food hall’s offerings.
In my peer group at the time, my homecooked vegan meals gained prominence and I was asked to give a short lecture about veganism to the dorm along with several recipes that I modified. Had it not been my final year, I probably would have advocated more vegan options in the food hall or worked with the staff to come up with better options. But I was ready to graduate and move forward.
When I moved from New England down South, I found myself once again responsible for my own cooking. I went through a financially thin period, so I can’t say that my meals were exciting, but more of whatever was calorically dense and cheap.
When I met Ash, however, I had a better job and he was excited to get home cooked meals instead of fast food, so he provided the funds for me to cook for him. I will discuss how home cooked meals were used as a language in our relationship on Wednesday, but it was nice to be cooking for someone besides myself and it not be dent-and-scratch discards.
I had vast experience cooking and baking before I lived on my own, but I found that my confidence grew even more with my own kitchen. In recent years, I rarely use measuring spoons for recipes but have the ability to eyeball quantities which both emboldens and frightens me.
One of these days I will put too much salt in a dish because I’m too cocky.
Never once on my own was I concerned about whether or not I could attempt a dish. It has always been a matter of “do I have access to the ingredients?” and “do I want to take the time to make it?”
Food for Family
Once Jai arrived, I finally came full circle. Now it was my turn to pass along my love of cooking to him, which we are already starting to do. A friend was kind enough to pass along a play kitchen set that he absolutely loves and has begun to mimic me with his play.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be discussing the ways we are encouraging Jai towards cooking and baking even as a toddler. I am looking forward to the Holidays this year, as we will probably do what my mom did and he’ll man the cookie cutters for our Holiday treats.
Throughout my years of cooking and baking, one thing I do when I am not in the kitchen is watch a ton of baking shows, both informational cooking shows, and competition shows. I particularly love British cooking shows and how wholesome they are during the competition, something you don’t really see in American competition shows.
I am also a massive fan of food travel shows. Watching hosts go all around the world and trying dishes I will probably never have the opportunity to have because of my personal dietary restrictions and lack of travel funds. Anthony Bourdain was a huge hero of mine, with his no-nonsense manner and brash personality. We were in the middle of getting ready for a camping trip, but every moment I had free that day I cried over the news of his passing. It was a dream to see him speak at some point and a fantasy to share a beer with him while he discussed his travels. I cried over the loss of great chef and a missed opportunity I would now never get.
Watching these sorts of programs gives me so many ideas of what I want to do next in the kitchen, even if I can’t eat it myself, but with my dietary restrictions it provides me with the same challenge I had in my childhood: preset conditions, but need to figure out a way to improvise to make it better. I have one such example coming up on Friday.
What drew you to working in the kitchen? Do you have a cooking/baking origin story? Share it in the comments below.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography