It’s not often that I find myself so violently against anything one of my brothers has to say to me. In adulthood we have found a companionship and a kind of camaraderie that we did not have as children or teenagers, perhaps it is our shared interest in things seen as “geeky” and “nerdy” by society, or perhaps we simply bonded over our shared, grimmer memories of our upbringing.
But right now I am not happy with what my brother has suggested to me and I let him know right away. What was his suggestion? That as soon as I am back on full time pay, I seriously slim down on all of my expenses so I might be able to repay all of my student loads in just a year or so. Perhaps it is not a horrible suggestion on paper, I have long felt tormented by those student loans, something my brothers never applied for during their few semesters at university and as they then took advantage of still living at home when they first started working they have now managed to amass savings that could pay off my debt almost three times over.
My problem with this suggestion, which would mean cutting down on all expenses, including vacation amusements, movie tickets and so on for up to three years, is that it would also mean slimming down my food budget. And that is something I could not stand for. Because, other than writing, cooking and a budget that allows me some wiggle-room when it comes to trying new product and new, fun dishes, is something I cannot imagine myself living without.
Yet, there are moments when I have to stop and wonder why this is so, why cooking has become this important to me. Why the idea of simple, cheap student fare sends me into such a state of depression. It’s not like I’m one of those people that dream of cooking for a living, right?
When I look back on my relationship with food and cooking it certainly doesn’t fit any of the stories fed to me during many of those reality shows featuring home cooks battling it out in a culinary arena to make their dream of working with food a reality. As a child my parents didn’t have much money and they’ve been quite open with how their bank accounts were pretty much empty the days before the next paycheck arrived. Things were so bad that on my fifth birthday they could not afford a birthday present for me, though the day was saved by a small collection made from my better off relatives, which ensured I received some kind of present (one of those long, plush caterpillars with sneaker-clad feet that were popular back in the 80s). My parents still managed to keep food on our table though, I never had to go to bed hungry, though the food was of the typical, plain fare that you’d expect in a poorer household. I suspect that this simple fare was the reason why I was such a fussy eater growing up, my palate wasn’t exposed to all that much, so when it encountered something different it immediately rejected it.
One big change snuck into my life in the form of the plot of land my grandma began to lease after she moved down to the same suburb as my family, to be available to babysit me and my younger brothers. With that plot of land there was more fresh produce introduced to my diet and with a good helping of butter and salt I was soon devouring such scary veggies as cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, beets, carrots and broccoli. I suppose it helped that my grandma tended to overcook them, almost into a kind of mush, easy on my child’s palate.
As my family’s finances began to improve, new product found its way on our table, less of the cheap food and more meat, fish and greens. Thanks to those early efforts of my grandmother I accepted most of it and a new world slowly began to open to me. And with that came a growing curiosity to know how to make these new meals, these new sauces and things offered to me on a plate. My mother had already allowed me to help out some when she baked her sponge cakes and cookies for Christmas, and soon enough I was invited to help out with dinner preparations as well, as long as I followed her strict instructions.
But it wasn’t really until high school that I became fully responsible for my own cooking. In the months leading up to and even into my freshman year, my parents had announced that my father was leaving the family and that the house we’d lived in for the past five years would be put up for sale. My mother and my brothers, who were finishing up their final year of elementary, would live temporarily with my grandmother until mom could find a proper apartment, while I, who was old enough to commute on my own, was to move in with my father in his new apartment closer to the city of Stockholm. It was a rather distressing event for everyone involved and though I admit that I drew the longest straw, it still was a sad life living alone with my dad. I would barely see him in the morning as we both rushed off in our separate ways, him to the subway and I to the train station, then my father would not arrive home from work until the evening, so dinner I had to cook for myself.
It wasn’t terribly hard, I had been tutored by my mother for years after all, and for the most part I stuck to simple recipes and dishes, like pre-made meatballs and hot dogs. Yet, it must have done something to me, that feeling that I could actually take care of and feed myself, because after my family had moved back together I was ready and willing to be responsible for whole meals for the entire family. At first I stuck to the same dishes mom had always cooked for us, but with time and with the influence I had from my American friends and my nerdier interests I began to look up new things to force upon my poor, unsuspecting family. I cooked gumbo, I made pecan pie and Mississippi mud-pie. I made chilis and burgers and new fancy pasta dishes, one that eventually came to be Christened “Cecilia’s Pasta”, which is still cooked by both my parents and my brothers.
So, when I eventually moved away to my own apartment I was already rearing to have as much fun as possible in the kitchen. I continued to look up recipes, I investigated small ethnic supermarkets for fun new product, I scoped out farmer’s markets and grocery stores both big and small, all of this on a fairly humble budget. If there was one thing I had fully embraced from my poor, humble beginnings, it was how to make the most out of the money you had, even if it meant you only had meat when the store was getting rid of meat that was close to its expiry date (you can just toss it in the freezer and it would keep for a while longer). And in a life that began to drain of most other color, that felt filled with disappointments and setbacks, my sessions in my cramped kitchen brought some color and joy back into my life. Even now, living in a kind of limbo looking for a new apartment, cooking brings me comfort. Baking pizza from scratch, using sourdough for the dough is as much as a pick-me-up for me as a night out on the town would be for some. And then there is the absolute joy I felt when I was able to invent a new, tasty pasta dish for a dear friend’s birthday.
Though the thought has occurred to me more than once, I have firmly concluded that though I have a deep love for cooking, a professional career as a chef or cook is not really for me. I just don’t think I could stand all that pressure. Though that resolution has been hard to keep after watching season after season of the Masterchef format and wondering how I’d measure up in that kind of competition (perhaps not so well, after all, I cannot make all that many sauces without some cheating and I still can’t cook a perfect lamb chop). Perhaps that is why I prefer “Top Chef”-format of shows, where people who are already successful chefs battle it out, producing elegant dishes I could never replicate, but only feel inspired by.
And that brings me back to the conversation with my brother and his suggestion to live on the cheap once more. The idea that I could not go to cooking fairs and purchase a nice bottle of olive oil, imported straight from Italy or a piece of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a jar of Greek Kalamata olives or a nice organic chili sauce; not pick up a fillet of venison or lamb as a rare treat; not splurge during a farmer’s market and buy newly harvested potatoes, beets and carrots is much too horrible and depressing to imagine.
Perhaps I’m a fool, but I know I’m not alone in this irrational love for food, good food, preferably purchased straight from the farmer’s own hands. In this world of preservatives and additives, of artificial dyes and flavorings, it should be encouraged to have more than a little interest in what you put in your mouth. Even if that means you delay the repaying of a loan just a smidge.