I started cooking when I was small enough to need a stool to reach the counter, but only for the past two years have I been cooking my own meals. Going across the country for college was a major step away from childhood and my parents' house, but it didn't particularly feel like a move toward adulthood and maturity until I moved into an apartment and, for the first time in my life, had my own kitchen. It was still school housing, and there was still a cleaning service, but suddenly I was cooking my own meals. Grocery-shopping, cooking, keeping track of left-overs: it required so much more forethought than deciding which cafeteria to go to.
This made me feel like an adult in a way that no number of good grades or 15-page papers could. Hadn't I been doing homework and projects for school since I was six years old? If anything, I was less responsible about my schoolwork in college than in high school, because I had finally figured out that success isn't predicated on perfection. In contrast, hadn't my mother (or father) always served a good dinner at the proper time?
Feeding myself three times a day was totally new. No one was going to provide dinner for me if my program was full of bugs and I lost track of time trying to hunt them down. Also, if I wanted to eat something other than grilled cheese sandwiches, lentil soup, or stirfry, it was up to me to find a new recipe. Feeding myself required initiative and creative thinking, above and beyond the organization and time management skills that school requires.
So in a way, I grew up in the kitchen.
I came to recognize and understand the spices whose names I had heard all my life, but who had always been strangers, the friends of my parents. Yesterday, I truly made the acquaintance of the noble bay leaf for the first time, when I made my second batch of split pea soup ever and found it radically better with the contribution of the bay leaves.
I began to understand my mother's enchantment with unfamiliar ingredients. Today I wandered the aisles of the organic grocery store with an attitude of meditation more commonly found in book stores than grocery stores. Celtic Sea Salt, Thai Wok Oil, Sucanat: so many mysteries waiting to be experienced.
And I recognized anew my weakness. When my mother was feeding me, when the school was feeding me, hunger was an experience I consciously chose at times, always accompanied by a promise of good food to come. Now that I cook for myself, I stumble into hunger at unexpected moments, and I find myself grumpy, despairing, insecure. It feels like the world is ending when I expect food and I don't get it. Perhaps I am still a child after all, crying when the milk doesn't flow or when my candy falls on the floor.
I am more than what I eat, but I am what I eat. In my own kitchen, it's a self that I am cooking.