September 19, 2021

YAO | Cooking Poorly

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I live in a collegetown apartment now, which means that even though I feel perpetually like a starry-eyed freshman, I’ve been thrust into this thing that social media loves to call “adulting” for the first time. I pay my own rent. I budget and save. I make weekly grocery trips. And I cook. With a stove and everything (Gordon Ramsey whomst?). It’s this last activity that gives me the greatest thrill of independence. And I’ve found that strangely enough, it’s become something of a new pastime born out of necessity. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s best chef. I try to follow the odd recipe here and there and find kitchen hacks online. Sometimes, when I’m feeling bougie, I’ll look up what foie gras is and then fantasize about winning Masterchef. More often than not, however, my version of cooking involves throwing a bunch of unrelated items into a pan and hoping for the best. 

The kitchen is one of the few places in my life where I allow myself this level of abandonment. If you’ve made it to this school, you’ve probably overachieved in most areas of your life. I personally have a near debilitating need for perfectionism when attempting anything. It frustrates me when I fail to churn out flawless code on my first attempt, or when a sentence I’m writing isn’t phrased exactly how I would like. I’m embarrassed to admit that I stopped making art for pleasure — one of my main extracurriculars in high school — because I’ve grown afraid of being unable to replicate my past ability.

I made art, in part, because I wanted to impress other people. I took it as a personal failure when someone gave any critique on something I had sacrificed weeks of sleep for. Now, two years removed from high school, I find it difficult to shake this outlook. Even though I could theoretically squirrel away everything I create à la Emily Dickenson, I still see my art as pieces to be displayed for the viewing of others. Pieces that no longer belong to me. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I can’t just quit cooking. I say that cooking makes me feel the most “grown-up” because I see it as an irrational sign of self-sufficiency. I cook because I need to stay alive — the incentive is as simple as that. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I’m able to separate from the counterproductive perfectionist mindset when chopping mushrooms and frying eggs. Perhaps it’s because after 30 minutes of eating and a clean plate, all of the evidence is gone. Perhaps it’s because, at the core, I view cooking as a transactional process necessary to supply me with enough calories and nutrients to sustain me until my next meal.

There’s comfort in being secure in the knowledge that I’m the only one whose opinion matters because I’m the only one who has to subject my taste buds to whatever concoction sits on the stove. I’m able to hold any illusions of grandeur at bay (the occasional Masterchef daydream aside). I have only two criteria for any dish I churn together: It must be edible, and it can’t make me gag out of sheer disgust. 

Born out of this freedom to explore comes great discovery. It turns out that I love seitan, but I can’t stand the texture of tempeh. Hummus can elevate almost any sandwich to bistro-level, and melted cheese makes pretty much everything taste better. Frozen vegetables are a cheap and hassle-free way of getting those nutrients in (or for pretending that your instant ramen is “healthy”). The lack of pressure I place on myself in this area allows me to feel safe in trying ridiculous food combinations and techniques without certainty of success. 

I can only hope that cooking is my gateway to breaking out of the need for excellence I’ve conditioned myself to strive for, while also learning some life skills I can carry with me forever. Being an early twenty-something is hard enough without creating unattainable goals for every aspect of my existence. So, here’s to many more days of cobbled-together vegetable stir fry and slightly-burnt caramelized onions to come! 

Katherine Yao is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Monday this semester.