Failed chef still finds joy in cooking’s elusive skills

A friend invited me to attend the chili cook-off at her apartment building in which she was the defending champion. (Alas, she lost the title this year.) This got me thinking yet again about how cooking is like magic to me, an elusive skill that I have not yet obtained.

My favorite cookbook remains to this day the Starving Student’s Cookbook. The recipes are simple, including only a few ingredients each, and they also use basic cookware, mostly one pot or pan.

There was one I used to make back in college with a marinade for chicken that involved soy sauce and a can of orange pop.

I also have 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, which has given me a few gems. But it also gave me the recipe that caused the Great Meatloaf Fiasco of ‘97, after which my friends converted to vegetarianism.

(They claimed the juxtaposition of the two events to be unrelated.)

I guess I should have been suspicious of a meatloaf recipe from a pasta cookbook, but I was a trusting soul.

Then there was my dabbling in raw foods. If you’re not familiar with this, there is an entire movement dedicated to the idea that cooking food is unnatural and destroys nutrients.

They contend that as much as possible, vegetables and fruits should be eaten raw. They also eschew bread and pasta, although raw-sprouted grains are acceptable.

I was determined that this would be the lifestyle for me since I couldn’t cook anyway. But after trying this for one weekend, I was crying for pizza by Sunday night.

It took me fifteen minutes to eat three bites of a raw yam loaf. I may have had jaws of steel from all the chewing, but I just couldn’t handle it.

I also got a juicer about this time that I did use quite a bit until I felt I had consumed my lifetime quota of carrot juice.

Let’s just say I take a lot of vitamins. If someone invented a pill so that I could get all my nutrition without having to eat, I’d buy cases of the stuff, as long as it’s not like the gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that made Violet turn into a giant blueberry that had to be squeezed back to her normal size.

(Come to think of it, the Oompa Loompas are orange. I wonder if they have had too much carrot juice.)

People have tried to help me over the years, but they know what they’re dealing with.

A friend sent me a recipe and specified removal of the bay leaves when the dish was done, suspecting that I didn’t realize they were not to be left in for eating.

Mom sent me something, and the direction was to pour the mixture into a “pan with sides,” knowing that if she didn’t clarify, then I’d think “pizza pan” and end up with a mess all over the oven.

I’ve achieved a modicum of success with a slow-cooker. I think the fact that I dump everything in together then leave it alone for several hours increases my chances of success as the less handling by me, the better.

My cooker and I have become good friends. In fact, we might even be going steady.

I would like to say that I grasp the concept of making beverages better than food, as demonstrated my penchant for tea.

But then I’m reminded of when I used to brew beer and wanted to make a pepper porter. Not really grasping the significance of the disparity between teaspoons and tablespoons, I simply grabbed a spoon and threw in what ended up being several times more cayenne powder than the recipe called for.

This stuff was so spicy that people told me to stop bringing it to parties. I had a friend who could eat jalapenos out of a jar but wouldn’t touch this stuff. I, however, thought the drink was the magic elixir. It gave me a feeling of euphoria.

My friends were convinced I was having some kind of reaction to all the pepper. I think it was shortly afterwards that I gave all my home brewing supplies to a friend. Everyone was relieved.

I recently joined a gym that advertises free pizza once a month. Mixed messages? Perhaps.

But I’m OK with it, as I will definitely get my money’s worth, even if I never use the machines. It’s also in the same strip mall with my favorite Chinese take-out place (that has free hot tea).

It will be like one-stop shopping every time I go to work out.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website,