Earlier this semester, when I stumbled upon the chance to get a Masterclass subscription for $1 during a student promotion, I jumped on it with the alacrity of a typically frugal college student. The subscription gave me access to hundreds of tutorials and lectures, but despite all of the different topics and spheres within my reach, I only had eyes for one genre: cooking.
I’ve been cooking for as long as I remember. With almost everyone on my mother’s side of the family being incredible cooks, I essentially grew up in the kitchen. Many of my earliest memories involve stealing vegetables and eating leftover brownie batter. My parents were quick to see the value of learning to cook, so it wasn’t long before they started encouraging me to experiment in the kitchen myself or help them with dinner. I made my first box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and baked brownies from a store-bought mix in first grade, leaving the kitchen in a whirlwind of leftover cheese powder and splattered brownie sludge as an inevitable consequence.
I’m grateful that my parents kept teaching me how to cook — in spite of my less-than-impressive efforts in cleaning up afterward (in my defense, I could barely reach the sink when I was eight). As time went on, I started teaching myself: I’d watch my family cook and take in little lessons from whatever I saw, be it tried-and-tested whipping techniques or how to clean a countertop. Every single person in my family has taught me something different. My grandmother makes the best dinner rolls and molasses cookies in miles. My uncle can grill anything to perfection. My mother always finds a way to use her Crock-Pot. My dad can throw together a lasagna in 15 minutes, and it still manages to be the best one yet every time.
But the truth is that no matter how delicious Saturday breakfasts and Tuesday dinners are, no one in my family is a world-renowned chef. My own cooking has vastly improved since making that first box of mac and cheese in elementary school, but I still struggle with making my dishes look aesthetically pleasing, and I still can’t bake a cake, even if my life depended on it. I think people shy away from learning to cook because they believe it’s a matter of having some innate knowledge or some inherent skill. It’s not. If you have basic kitchen supplies and the right ingredients, following a recipe is just a matter of careful reading.
Finding a recipe is just a Google search away, but asking your family and friends for recommendations or treasured family recipes might be even better! Of course, there will be mishaps: In middle school, my first banana bread came out of the oven looking like charcoal, and it was then I learned the important lesson that baking powder and baking soda are NOT the same. But, I promise that cooking regularly will improve your skills and the quality of your dishes. Cooking is not a skill you can define in absolutes. You don’t just have it or not have it; anyone can cook if they keep at it.
If the sheer joy of making your own food isn't enough motivation for you to learn how to cook, perhaps consider cooking as a way to take a break from Zoom this virtual semester. Sometimes I listen to music while I cook, but otherwise it makes for an entirely screen-free pastime for me — something I don’t have much of these days.
In a normal semester on campus, I would be eating meals with friends, walking to classes, and attending lectures in-person. This semester, all of those activities have been replaced with uploading assignments on Canvas, watching pre-recorded lectures at double speed, and hopping on Zoom calls with my friends in an attempt to maintain some sliver of normalcy in my life — which is exactly why it’s so important for me to spend at least one hour each day just cooking (occasionally even three to four hours if I’m avoiding having to study for an exam or work on a problem set). If I’m going to procrastinate anyways, cooking is an excellent way to facilitate that.
Now that I live in an apartment and have my own kitchen, I’ve been able to experiment more with my cooking. Over this semester, I’ve made bread, pizza, hummus, and whatever else pops up on my Pinterest feed. I’ve perfected my favorite ramen recipe and aced vegetable stir-fry. To heal the campus-sized hole in my heart, I’ve even started making my own bubble tea. It’s surprisingly simple and so much cheaper than regular boba from Kung Fu Tea.
In a semester where we’re all spending overwhelming amounts of time staring at our computers, it is absolutely critical to find a screen-free activity that also provides genuine respite from schoolwork. Cooking is by no means the only option. But we all have to eat, so it can be easier to fit into a packed schedule given that you’ve probably already budgeted time for food. So the next time you find yourself scrolling through Tiger Confessions# after an exhaustingly long day of class (we’ve all been there), try stepping away from your screen and recreating your favorite meal or drink from campus instead, and maybe you’ll find a different way of connecting to Princeton in a time when we’re all so far away from it.