A recap on the who what when where and how
Through my whole 20s and most of my 30s I was an unrelenting cracker eater and most unabashed non-cook. I am still eating those crackers (by the box!), but have become near about abashed as anything on the non-cook front. Here is the situation: I am in love with a man who is a fantastic cook, and I wish more than a little to impress him and win his approval. To make matters more complicated, I am married to said fantastic cook! Hiroyuki and I have two little boys, Cosmo and Rocky, and even beyond that business about proving myself to their father, I do truly also wish to rise from my schlumpity schlump of ineptitude in the kitchen for the sake of my little boys’ dinner. Why, the sympathetic among you may ask, can’t Hiroyuki be the house cook and everyone is happy? The answer to the question is that he is, and we are. Yet, still, there are all kinds of la-dee-da about my self-respect, etc., and then there’s also the following bald fact: Sometimes people are hungry and Hiroyuki isn’t home.
When I met Hiroyuki, who is a sculptor, he was living in Union City, New Jersey, in a big industrial building where he had his studio. He wasn’t supposed to be living in the studio, it being illegal and all, but he was living there nonetheless, as artists sometimes take it upon themselves to do. The kitchen situation was that there was no kitchen, but he had rigged up a counter space out of an old door up on sawhorses. He had an impregnable-looking juicer, a “Super Ninja” gas canisterfueled hot plate, and a bear of a toaster oven (later, in the dawn of our domestic life together, my frantic, fire-hazard-fearing urging convinced Hiroyuki to take this venerable item to the “home exchange” corner of the East Hampton Town Dump). Next to the counter space he had installed the most enormous, old, brown, vaguely sinister refrigerator I’d ever seen. His only sink was a big industrial slop sink located out the door, in the corridor. (The bathroom was down the way from there.) In this set-up, Hiroyuki fixed himself miso soup for breakfast, crazy fruit/vegetable concoctions from his juicer, and delicious stir-fry. He even sprouted his own rice, though he had to rig up a pulley system on a column in the studio so the mice couldn’t get to the rice before he did.
In a parallel universe, I had been living in a cute, top floor railroad apartment in the West Village with a box of crackers in the cupboard and a bottle of champagne in the otherwise empty fridge. In a nutshell: Hiroyuki Hamada is a person with the will to cook; Evan Harris is a person with the will to drink coffee.
Recently at a potluck type of gathering (oh the free-loading-on-my-husband’s-dishes I am guilty of!) I admitted, or, actually, asserted, that I wish I could just take a darn pill for my food needs and be done with it. This is not really a polite thing to say at a potluck type of gathering where everyone present has lovingly prepared a dish to share with the group. Instantly, I regretted my rash and rude little speech. Especially because it isn’t at all true! I’m no skinny mini, I’m certainly no ascetic, and I like to eat! I just don’t like to need to eat. Come on, who among us likes to be told what to do?
The need to eat, however, on the part of my family and myself is what led me, about three years ago, to get a hold of my self and take action. Even though I am shy and neurotic about asking for help, I began to ask friends who can cook to help me learn. Since then I’ve been documenting my lessons with words and photos, and, willy nilly, food has been prepared. Thank you Alice Hope, Bill Stewart, Phillipa Kaye, Jill Musnicki, Paul Tough, Barbara Dayton, Michele Berdy, Roisin Bateman and Charlotte Sasso.
Rock on in the universe!
No more not cooking!
What was the scene?
Roisin came to our house on a damp Tuesday afternoon in early February. Even though she had mentioned that she would like to involve the kids in the cooking lesson, I was pretty nervous about managing the boys and trying to learn how to cook at the same time. You see, at our house in the afternoon there is wildness. Jumping! Crashing! Tyrannosaurusrexing! This can be awkward when there’s company …
As it turned out, there was wildness, absolutely amped up wildness, but at the first opportunity, Roisin was somehow able to harness Cosmo’s energy with a special job that he took very seriously (see below). And for the most part, he stuck with her! About halfway through the cooking lesson, Cosmo turned to me and said “Mom, I want to wear my apron!” The apron in question is a very nifty article that our friend Julie Greene sewed with her own hands as a birthday party favor a few years ago. I was not aware that Cosmo was aware that he owns this item, but he is, and I fetched it, and he did not take it off until bedtime. As for Rock, well, he insisted that Roisin hold him in her arms through a good part of the lesson. He knows where the nutrition is!
Roisin embracing my boys as future cooks gave me a wonderful, exciting thrill because Roisin is a person with whom you definitely want your children to spend time. The depth of her kindness, the readiness of her understanding, the steadfast—not at all static—quality of her calm are all very clear and present when you are with her. I think children feel her as a kind of balm. In fact, I think of Roisin as a healer. Her food is wonderful, and I have long admired her dishes at potluck gatherings and dinner parties, but her place in my mind as a healer spurred me to ask her to help me with a cooking lesson. It seemed to me that she would help me somehow connect with the food in the way that a healer connects people with health.
What did Roisin teach me to cook?
A baked Korean chicken dish! First, she oversaw while I made the sauce, which involves rice wine, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and minced garlic. Meanwhile, Cosmo was doing his special job of roasting the sesame seeds, standing on a chair carefully stirring them over a very low heat while Roisin backed him up with encouragement and a safety presence. When they were nicely toasted, the sesame seeds went into the sauce. Next we went looking for a workable baking pan. This turned out to be the Pyrex oval shaped baking pan we keep up on top of the kitchen shelves. This item is about the size of a record album, if a record album were oval shaped. Once the pan was all figured out, it was time to look at the chicken. The chicken was a whole, cut-up Murray’s chicken I’d purchased at the IGA in Sag Harbor. I purchased this kind of chicken because that’s the one Roisin suggested. So the next thing we did was to take the skin off the various parts of the chicken, except the wings and the drumsticks. Touching a chicken is gross because the chicken used to bock bock bock. I just cannot get around it. Just cannot! But this wasn’t that bad, and soon enough the chicken was more or less skinless and arranged in the Pyrex oval. Next the sauce was poured in, then the chicken parts were swished around and turned over and back over, and then, pop, into the oven. It stayed there for a good long time while we all went outside to play in spite of the damp day.
When it was time to come in, we worked on making rice, spinach, and Korean style nori. I had purchased a certain kind of rice recommended by Roisin, which is River Rice, which comes in a yellow box. Roisin showed me how to arrive at the right rice/water ratio by measuring the amount of water over the rice in the pot with her knuckles. She mentioned that she’d learned to do this from her mother-in-law. I think if I could actually do this measuring-with-the-knuckles technique, my cooking worries would be over forever because I would have come into a high level of food-related intuition. As it is, to tell the unvarnished truth, I have no level of food-related intuition. I cannot make a decent pot of rice on my own
using any technique, including reading the instructions on the back of the yellow (or any other color) box. But I’m working on it!
Then there was the spinach! It was very simple and delicious. Roisin showed me how to cook it in a little bit of boiling water, then to squeeze out the water on the side of the pot and add soy sauce, sesame oil and lemon. At the very end, she sprinkled some sesame seeds over the top. Here, I have to say that I love spinach. It also happens to be true that there are a number of foods that I do not love. For example, there are quite a few other leafy greens that ought to be embarrassed to come to the table at all, compared to spinach, spinach my love. I do not like to call other leafy greens names, and, anyway, I love spinach so much that I believe my love cancels out all of these other not-loves. Let them call me picky: I know the difference between love and not-love and I know love is the more powerful of the two. By a lot.
And last of all, the Korean nori. This was prepared by Cosmo and Roisin, with Rocky tagging along, in the hectic moments before we all sat down to dinner. I don’t know what I was doing: rushing around. I cannot say I have any idea how to make the Korean nori, but I do know that my children were fully engaged in helping/hindering and then absolutely intent on grabbing and gobbling the sheets of it as Roisin stacked them on a plate; she was cracking up at the boys mischievous bid for the delicious nori, but also trying to get some of it to the table!
Did I try the baked Korean chicken dish on my own?
Yes! But first of all I have to report that everyone ate very well the evening of the cooking lesson. Cosmo was especially impressed by Roisin’s chicken dish. In the morning, as I was preparing Cosmo’s lunch box, he asked me if he could have for his lunch “the chicken that Roisin made.” So you see it was a hit!
The first time I tried the chicken dish on my own, Hiroyuki was away from the house for dinner, so it was just the boys and me. I was a little rushed because the afternoon had gotten away from me, and we eat very early at our house. But this is just as well. I didn’t have the space in my head to get nervous and back out of the proposition. No chickening out of the chicken.
Instead, I did it. I made the chicken! It was great! I made the rice! It was horrible and wet! But Rock will eat rice in any form whatsoever, so he consumed a huge gloop of it, and I was satisfied. After dinner, I carefully wrapped the leftovers so that Hiroyuki could try them when he returned home.
But here is the thing about my first try at the baked Korean chicken dish that somehow marked the experience for me. At around 7:30, after the boys were both tight asleep, I came into the kitchen to tidy up but first peeked in on the chicken where it was sitting covered on the stovetop. Looked good. I uncovered the pan. Then, in a behavior usually reserved for leftover chocolate cake or the crusty top layer of a pan of macaroni and cheese, I stood there over the stove picking at the baked Korean chicken dish with my fingers. It was not so dainty a pick pick pick, and I never got a plate, and I polished off a good portion of that poor former bird, which would never again bock bock bock because it had been transformed so completely and successfully into food.
I think this is one of the things about cooking that makes me nervous: I don’t really trust in my ability to transform ingredients to food. And this must be done, even when the ingredient did not formerly bock or moo or oink or baa. Though if it did bock or moo or oink or baa, that transformation is much more fraught with peril. You might fail to actually cook it!
But in this case, I managed the procedure. And, also, something more fragile: I found a sense of food-related direction and intent. Maybe I am only doing fancy footwork here, but I feel that the force of these two things makes it seem as if that chicken did come to some kind of noble end. I wasn’t just dancing around with a vague notion, bottle of soy sauce and a dead chicken. Not this time, sportsfans: I had a proven plan and I seriously meant to feed my family.