When the rampant spread of COVID-19 forced the country to shut down in March, I had big plans for myself.
While we can all agree that global pandemics suck, I’m an optimist and was determined to use life’s proverbial lemons to make not only lemonade, but lemon bars, lemon poppy seed muffins, and limoncello. My quarantine goals included a physical transformation rivaling that of Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie, complete mastery of the piano despite years of haphazard practice habits, and a publishing deal for the next great American novel, the earnings of which would pay off my student debt. Simply put, this period of anxiety and despair would be my own metamorphosis; a phase I would enter as a perfectly average caterpillar and exit as an utterly remarkable butterfly whose humble roots in obscurity kept him grounded.
To boost my street cred in a post-COVID world, I also vowed to improve my skills in the kitchen. I have never successfully produced a grilled cheese sandwich and I still follow a recipe to boil eggs. That should give you some ideas of what I was working with.
I have long fostered a love-hate relationship with cooking. I love eating food, but I hate making it.
I guess “hate” is a strong word. It’s probably more accurate to say I’m just not good at cooking. It confuses me to no end. If I’m looking at a pot of bubbling water, how in the world am I supposed to know if it’s boiling or simmering? And honestly, what’s the difference if the water is hot enough to bubble?
While we’re talking about heat, terms like “cook over low heat” seem pretty subjective. If I correctly answer six out of ten questions on a test, I need to ask the teacher about extra credit opportunities after class because my test score is objectively low. If a politician gets six out of every ten votes, however, her numbers are high, and she’s got the election in the bag. If my stove has heat levels ranging from one to ten, who’s to say what’s considered “low heat?”
Then there’s the vocabulary of cooking. Someone please explain to me how the words “diced,” “chopped,” and “minced,” mean different things. Or “dash” and “pinch.” I guess it’s a start that I at least know these terms are vaguely related to cooking. I was twenty-five when I learned the word “julienne” could be anything other than some French girl’s name. And don’t even ask me what it means. Call me crazy, but I shouldn’t have to do thirty minutes of background research to fulfill the basic human need of sustenance.
Cooking is also terrifying.
My mom once gave me a cookbook called Anyone Can Cook (the title alone tells you how desperate the situation was). Before listing any recipes, the book enumerated the many safety hazards associated with cooking. It scared me so badly I wouldn’t go into the kitchen for days.
My world turned around when, after a lifetime of believing water puts out fires, I learned that kitchen fires are different and can be made worse if you pour water on them. According to the book, using a fire extinguisher is the best way to deal with a kitchen fire. That makes sense, but I’ve always grouped fire extinguishers with things like throw pillows, coffee table books, and mixers; items owned only by people who totally have their lives together – real adults, in other words.
When I’m not worried about burning my home to the ground, I’m terrified of killing myself and those I love with salmonella. In my book, these hazards – combined with the constant risk of chopping my finger off with a knife – make cooking one of the most dangerous activities one can do. I can’t think of another day-to-day task where the stakes are literally death or loss of limb. It’s enough to have me ordering takeout for the rest of my life.
Since my name isn’t Bill Gates, however, that’s not an option.
Every time I visit my parents in North Carolina, they do their best to impart some culinary wisdom. They’re both good cooks and decent teachers, but when I return to Boston and am forced to cook for myself, everything they’ve taught me leaves and I’m left staring blankly at my stove as if it’s an extra-terrestrial object that’s just crashed to Earth.
I’ve gotten pretty good at coming up with excuses not to cook: My roommates love cooking, so who am I to deprive them of their hobby? This bread will go bad by the end of the week, so why shouldn’t I make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches each day? I’ve got no time to prepare a meal tonight, so I’ll just heat up this frozen dinner.
When the pandemic struck and we were all suddenly faced with more free time than we’d ever dreamed of, however, I really had no excuse not to give cooking the old college try once and for all.
I decided quesadillas were the perfect first step for my culinary journey. With enough vegetables, I could get by without adding any meat, so at least salmonella wasn’t a risk here. Author’s note: I found out during the editing process that apparently salmonella can come from fruits, vegetables, and other non-meats. Continue reading. I’ll just be in some corner breathing into a paper bag. Even if I botched them, it’s hard to ruin any dish whose main ingredients are bread and cheese. I even felt confident enough to offer a quesadilla to my brother.
With the help of some YouTube videos and a call to my mom, I chopped (Diced? Minced? I honestly have no idea) the mushrooms and zucchini without any problems.
Then came the onions.
Friends, I cried chopping those onions as I have not cried since the first time I watched the final episode of Schitt’s Creek. Anyone who entered the kitchen at that moment would have seen me and immediately assumed someone dear to me had died in a terrible way. Chopping the onions took more time than I expected, mainly because I wept throughout the entire process and had to keep blowing my nose for fear of producing snotty quesadillas.
Once I’d chopped and sautéed all the vegetables (and recovered from the emotional trauma caused by the onions), I was ready to assemble my quesadillas. I’d heard people say that the trick to making quesadillas hold together is to add a lot of cheese. I may have overcompensated by filling the tortillas with so much cheese that they would hardly fold over. After I ate maybe a fourth of the cheese and refolded the tortillas, I had two respectable-looking quesadillas.
At this point, I got a little too big for my britches. I looked at my circular skillet and my two semi-circular quesadillas and saw no reason I shouldn’t pop them both into the pan at the same time. When the time came to flip the quesadillas, I realized I’d flown too close to the sun. With no empty room in the skillet, simply flipping them over in the pan wasn’t an option. I had no choice but to remove them from the pan, flip them over, and lay them back in the same position.
This was much easier said than done.
During its removal from the skillet, the first quesadilla promptly fell apart, cheese and vegetables flowing all over the pan while the half-cooked tortilla lay limply across them like a lone sail floating in the ocean after a devastating shipwreck.
“It’s not a problem,” I thought to myself. “I’ll eat this one and save the other one for Corey.”
After a disastrous attempt to flip the second quesadilla, it was clear that neither of the Hart brothers would be eating a structural quesadilla that night.
I scooped what wasn’t stuck to the pan into bowls and walked into the living room to show my brother what I’d done. We morosely looked down at our quesadillas, which were essentially bowls of sautéed vegetables mixed with a few ribbons of mangled tortillas and crisps of burnt cheese. I’ve seen less depressing meals at funerals.
I felt the need to apologize to my brother, telling him I wouldn’t be offended if he didn’t eat what I’d made. He took pity on me and said, “It’s fine. I know you tried. You did your best.”
His words were likely obligatory, but they made me feel a little better. He was right. I’d done my best. Granted, my best was an unrecognizable quesadilla that looked like someone had already chewed it up and spit it out, but I was proud of myself just the same.
I’d taken a chance, I’d tried something new, and I’d learned from my mistakes.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that the next time I want a quesadilla, I’m better off ordering take-out from the Mexican restaurant down the street.
Laughs aside, there are many people for whom food insecurity is a very real problem. If you are able, I encourage you to explore efforts to feed the hungry in your neighborhood and in the global community and to find ways in which you can contribute. If you need suggestions, I’d start with one of the organizations below.
Feeding America – US Hunger Relief Organization: This national organization works with a network of food pantries to provide meals to people in need. It also partners with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, food service companies, and farmers to gather food before it goes to waste. https://www.feedingamerica.org/
World Central Kitchen – The World Central Kitchen provides relief from disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic through the provision of meals to those in need. They also partner with local chefs, restaurants, and food providers, aiding them in their struggles and educating them on the best ways to support the hungry in their communities. https://wck.org/programs