Last Call: The most imperfect moment to learn how to cook

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Last CallLast CallLast Call is The Takeout’s online watering hole where you can chat, share recipes, and use the comment section as an open thread. Here’s what we’ve been reading/watching/listening around the office today.

I taught myself how to cook in the months after 9/11, while I was undergoing chemotherapy for stage IV lymphoma in a hospital in Brooklyn. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday I’d go in for treatment, take the elevator up to the fifth floor, and the doors would open to a big picture window overlooking the New York Harbor filled with smoke as the former site of the World Trade Center continued to burn. Sometimes the nurses would let me walk around outside the chemo ward (just to keep my sanity), and I’d stare out that window, straight at the thick, black plume. I’d be so flooded with memories and rattled with fear that eventually my brain would go to black. There was too much to think about, so there was nothing to think about.

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I’d lean against my IV, gripping it with white-knuckled fists, and shuffle back to oncology. I’d stop to catch my breath halfway along the route in the seating area outside the maternity ward. Every time a baby was born, “Happy Birthday” would play on the PA system, sweetly tinkled on the keys of a child’s piano. I wondered what kind of life those babies would have.

The sadness of existence became too much—ironic, as I was fighting for my life. So I began to cook whenever I felt strong enough to do it. I read cookbooks like novels, I watched Food Network and PBS like they were the college lectures I was missing out on from my sick bed. Cancer had decided it was taking a year of my life from me, but I needed to feel like whatever life I was still clinging to was mine. I learned how to properly chop a carrot, how to sear a steak, how to bake a pie. I would do the same precise motions over and over until I got them right. During that repetition, I could think about nothing else. I learned how to manipulate food so that I could control it. I could play God in my own kitchen.

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As the weeks went on, the fire stopped burning. The sky eventually went back to being the perfect shade of blue. My cancer went away, too. Some of those babies probably graduated from the same high school I went to just a few blocks north of Ground Zero. Everything was normal.

I never stopped cooking. I’m in my kitchen every day working on recipes, and I know a lot of you are in the kitchen right now, too, trying to find a sense of control. So let’s lean on each other. Send me all your cooking questions; like I’ve done before with pie, I’ll be answering your queries and dishing out any sort of advice you need. (Ask them in the comments below, or send us a message at hello@thetakeout.com). Share pics of whatever you’re making in the comments section. Swap ideas between yourselves. And I’ll keep you supplied with recipe ideas, whether you’re a novice or a professional. I’m well versed in cooking while it feels like the world is burning down right outside your door. I will cook through this like I cooked through cancer and 9/11 and the crash of ’08 and Superstorm Sandy and all the other things that challenged my idea of what normal was. Water will always boil at 212 degrees. Avocados will always go bad five minutes after they ripen. Hot dogs will never be sandwiches.

None of us know what will happen tomorrow or a week from now, but in the meantime, we can cut carrots into perfect little cubes. We can learn how to sear a steak. We can simmer stock for hours and make a pot of beans. We can pound at dough with our fists. We can make cookies and cakes and eat them all ourselves. We can do our very best.

Allison Robicelli is The Takeout staff writer, a former professional chef, author of three books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Questions about recipes/need cooking advice? Tweet @Robicellis.

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DISCUSSION

Allison, words aren’t enough. Its impossible for you to ever receive the recognition and appreciation you deserve from the public. Thanks for letting us take our best shot.

Was this also when you started baking? Or is baking and cooking a distinction that a mere bachelor like me would never understand?