When I went off to college, I took with me several boxes of my most prized stuff, a desire to become a hard hitting journalist and the ability to make Ramen noodles about 50% of the time without soiling the microwave with overflow. I felt prepared to live on my own (well, with my best friend from high school), as long as that included a meal card with three full meals a day on it. If I had not had dinning service, I probably would have gotten scurvy or rickets or something.
Not that living in the dorm really encourages a culinary atmosphere. We did have a kitchenette on our floor, and unlike the one on the guys’ floor, no one had peed in our oven, so it was usable. And I did use it. Once. My roommate and I wanted to make a special dinner for the guys we were dating at the time. I was very excited because I felt quite worldly cooking dinner for “my man” in my own little “apartment.”* Since this was such an important endeavor, I had to make my specialty: spaghetti.
We rode the shuttle bus out the football stadium to get my car. We went to the nearest store and bought our supplies: boxed noodles, jarred sauce and pre-packaged garlic bread. She convinced a friend of ours to get us a bottle of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine and we had quite the feast. Neither of the boys complained at all, even though the stir fry they were serving at the dinning hall was no doubt tastier.
A few months later, well after I’d broken up with that guy and found the one who would become my first husband, I decided that the dorm was too cramped and I wanted to move in to a love nest with the man of my dreams. Well, him and my roommate and her boyfriend. We were still broke college kids afterall and couldn’t afford a place for just the two of us. While I was blissfully excited and feeling quite grown up at the prospect of living with my boyfriend, there was a real downside (and not just the fact that my roommate’s boyfriend was a total douche): no more meals cooked by nice grandmotherly types and cleaned up by other poor college kids. Now, the burden of feeding myself would be all on me.
When we moved in, my folks sent me off with quite the spread: lots of boxed and canned items. I had hamburger helper (sans hamburger), mac n’ cheese, canned beans and corn, cereal, spaghetti and sauce and of course, a stock pile of Ramen. I’d even grabbed some of my favorite spices from the pantry before I left home: garlic salt, oregano and basil (from the dollar store). My boyfriend hadn’t brought anything with him, so we went to the store for some refrigerated basics.
Our first shopping trip was fun, but consisted of things like fish sticks, chicken nuggets, tomato soup, pot pies, bread, American cheese and boxed cheesy potatoes. I don’t think we bought an actual vegetable that didn’t have to be rehydrated or plop out from a can.
We took great pride in alternating cooking. I remember cutting things short with friends because it was my night to cook dinner. I actually used those words: cook dinner. In reality, I turned the oven on, poured some fish sticks and french fries on a cookie sheet, stuck it in and checked it every few minutes. I didn’t even have the good sense to preheat the oven, so my sticks would be scalding and my fries limp and pasty. When it was pot pie night, I figured they had veggies in them, so I didn’t even bother subsidizing like I did with the fries (yes, I thought potato= veggie). Once again, since I didn’t preheat, the crust of the pie would burn my mouth and the carrots would still be partially frozen.
And don’t even talk about the poor grilled cheese. No one ever really told me the fine art of making anything on the stove, so I just turned it up on high and threw the sandwich on. I spent every grilled cheese night scrapping burned spots off my bread. It was so thin in places the cheese had nothing to cling to.
In hindsight, I feel really bad for my EX. Not that he ever complained. See, he came from a family of actual good cooks. His mom took the time to teach him how to cook (in part b/c she had to work really, really hard to support them, so he often cooked for five). And he was one of those sort of natural cooks who never followed anything resembling a recipe. He just sort of threw ingredients in the pot. Usually it worked really, really well (his chili was AMAZING). Every no and then he’d create something I couldn’t stomach (I still shudder when I think of the fish stew), but at least he tried. He was creative…inventive even. I, well, I fed him fish sticks once a week.
During our first year of marriage, I think the only non pre-packaged food I made were potato wedges, and all I did was cut up potatoes, dip them in butter, pour some season salt on them and bake until they browned. I did get a bit fancy and melt some more butter (rather than plain ol’ ketchup) to dip them in. I’m not really sure how he survived!
By the time we were ready to graduate college, I was a bit better. I’d picked up a few habits from him, and even learned to use a few more spices. I owned two or three cookbooks and actually cracked them about once a month to make something interesting. But, my versions never turned out like the pictures in the books, so I got a bit discouraged and really stuck to the half dozen or so dishes (all chicken) I had managed to make pretty well. Granted, each time I made one, I grabbed the recipe book and followed it to a T.
Now I should be clear: I LOVED looking at cookbooks. My step-mom, who NEVER cooks, owns dozens of cookbooks. Most of them are the tiny kind found in grocery store checkout lines, bought on a whim because the picture on the front cover looked tasty. They’d be skimmed through, the dishes determined too hard and then thrown in a drawer. I too would consider making them, only to realize I didn’t have any of the ingredients I needed. My EX and I were poor back then. We did all of our shopping at Aldi, so the idea of having capers to put in a chicken dish was foreign to me. I mean, who just has capers in their pantry?**My impetus to cook came out of necessity, not any sort of true desire, so it was far easier to take something out of a box and throw it in the oven rather than actually going shopping for special ingredients I might use part of and then never use again.
In college, and right after, cooking seemed more wasteful than anything else. Heck, I’m talking about the days my EX and I would eat a late breakfast, go to Old Country Buffet at like 3 (so we’d still pay the lunch price), stuff ourselves to bulging and then just have a snack for dinner. I’m also talking about the days when if my EX was out and it was just me, I was totally cool taking a box of frozen spinach out, thawing it in the microwave, putting some butter and salt on it and calling it dinner. For under $1, I had a meal. I was also known to have lunches of just a sleeve of Saltine crackers or half a bag of cheap corn chips and cheaper salsa.
Is it any wonder the idea of 40 clove chicken or duck a la orange scarred me to death?
*Read 200 square foot (at most) room which we had to move all our furniture to one side of to fit a borrowed card table and chairs at.
**That’d be me now…I bought them for a recipe and didn’t end up making it. I wonder how long capers stay good for. Huh…maybe I should check on that.