I cooked my first dish when I was five: loaf of bread, water, ice cubes. No idea why, I never ate any of it but I would do it again and again every Saturday morning. I was using the stove unsupervised to make pancakes by the third grade, crazy now that I think about it, given how clumsy I am to this day.
My parents were usually out of the house working, they’d get dinner ready when they got home but that timeline doesn’t work for two chubby boys. I quickly graduated from pancakes to canned corn with hot sauce… is that graduating? From there to instant noodles, spaghetti, sandwiches. When I hit college like all the other boys in GA I started grilling. Throughout all this time though, I wasn’t really cooking, it was more slapping things together to fill the void in my stomach. Even though I loved grilling, it was more the sitting outside with a case of beer all day that I enjoyed.
I only started thinking critically about cooking when I was living in Ukraine. I think like all Peace Corps Volunteers cooking became a big part of who I was, namely because… you had to cook all your meals. For the first couple weeks all I ate was instant noodles, they were the only packaged/instant meal I could find and even though my Ukrainian was horrendous at this point I knew what the package was as soon as I saw it. However, once I found out that a couple of observant (nosy) people yelled at the teacher whose apartment I was staying in for not taking better care of me I figured I had to change things up. So off I went to the grocery store and for the first time tried to use my middling Ukrainian to piece together a meal that I could recognize. I ended up settling on spaghetti and what I could only assume was a jar of tomato sauce. I took my two ingredients back to the apartment, boiled the noodles, threw the contents of the jar onto the noodles, then took the lot to my room.
First bite I took my immediate reaction was “this is a little sour”… second bite “no, it’s spicy”… third bite in I broke out into a sweat and my eyes started watering. Turns out they have tomato paste in Ukraine, it just comes in jars that are the same size and shape as the Ragu or Prego pasta sauces. By the time I had finished the bowl I was drenched in sweat and wanted to cry, I normally don’t respond well to sour things and I was expecting a big pile of soul replenishing pasta. To be honest I can’t even really blame this on my Ukrainian, tomato paste in Ukrainian is…томатна паста, which… is the literal translation, it even looks exactly the same. When I think back on it now, I think I knew that it was tomato paste when I bought it, I just thought that there wasn’t really any difference. As long as it’s tomatoes right?
Needless to say, I switched back to instant noodles. It wasn’t until I had moved into my own place and my stomach and butt hole started burning at the sight of the all too familiar yellow and orange packaging that I made another attempt. I moved from tomato paste on spaghetti to frozen пельме́ни and вареники (dumplings), which got me through a lot of desperate times. But when I accidentally bought 4 lbs of liver dumplings I decided to move to things where I wasn’t guessing any more. So that’s when I started cooking for real: potatoes, vegetables, chicken, things where I didn’t need a dictionary.
* I guess this all could have been better addressed by asking for clarification instead of just nodding dumbly whenever someone tried to explain to me why I might not want what I just asked for…. or actually put some fucking effort into learning the language.
My first culinary efforts ended up with grainy potatoes, burnt sausage, dried up chicken, tear inducing plates of loneliness and sadness. Eventually I started figuring things out, I started carving out my own staples and go tos. When other Americans visited my place they knew what they were going to eat. When I was visiting them in turn I knew what to expect as well. When everyone is working off the same limited ingredients differences in cooking ability and philosophy become more and more apparent.
A friend of mine was a reserved, minimalist, athlete who didn’t want to spend all his time cooking. He ate over a dozen eggs a week: scrambled eggs and ketchup on oatmeal, rice, or noodles. Another went full volunteer mode and spent all her time learning as many traditional Ukrainian recipes as she could. One went full comfort mode and tried recreating anything that reminded her of home. Everyone at some point said “hey you know that green jar next to the tomato paste? It’s almost like salsa… almost”.
Whether they wanted to or not every volunteer started forming their own identities surrounding food. Some cooked all the time, others tutored for home cooked meals, everyone at some point turned to the faithful yellow and orange. At all times I had at least a couple packages tucked away in the back of my cupboard… for an emergency.