Things took a left turn for me about two and a half years ago. Hard to pinpoint why, but it could have been a classic case of having had a child and then being too tired to take anyone’s crap at work. It could have been simply needing a change. The culinary field wasn’t my first career afterall.
What I do now is likely more my 4th career. My educational background and first career were in commercial architecture. In retrospect the job was mostly boring and repetitive, with only the first few years of it when I worked in Michigan showing a high level of craftsmanship. Otherwise there’s some prisons in Nevada with some fantastic window and roofing details courtesy of yours truly.
After architecture came the culinary field, career number two. From day one I loved the variety of the day, the speed at which things had to be done, the minimal margin for error. If you need a detail oriented individual in your life capable of working on their feet for hours on end with no food, low pay and yet are capable of functioning at a high level, befriend someone working at your favorite restaurant. Really. Just don’t expect them to cook for you at home, offer them a meal instead.
Career number three: food writer. I can’t say I was prolific in any way, but I did have regular columns in Phoenix, Arizona publications for some times. I wrote much as I write here, and in the previous version of this blog. Mexican food, Mexican humor, focusing on the Sonoran, and mostly trying to not take things too seriously. There was a column once involving the word ‘tragedy’ which turned out to be seriously poorly timed with violent acts and this is where I learned that all important lesson, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS. Never ever read the comments. Even if all you write is ‘the sky is blue with white fluffy clouds’ someone will comment in a hostile manner.
The few comments I’ve received on this blog over the years have actually been always of the very nice variety, which has been a pleasant surprise. Keep it up you few commenters. And thank you and apologies if I never respond.
Career number four: culinary instructor. Much like food writing, I got talked into this one. This is how food writing happened: Friend and I sit at a bar for happy hour snacks and drinks. Man next to us can’t help but overhear the conversation going on because we weren’t exactly being quiet. Turns out man happens to own a couple of local newspapers. Man reads my old blog, thinks I’m funny, etc.
This is how working as a culinary instructor happened: I was living in the woods in Upstate New York (in a non-Walden Pond kind of way), and happened to comment in a smart mouth kind of way (shocking!) on an online article about decolonizing Mexican cuisine which was a bit too extremist (see, NEVER READ THE COMMENTS). A likeminded individual also commented on said article. Comments were linked to our Facebook accounts, this individual and I poked around our accounts, realized we had people, interests, causes in common and connected. Said individual happened to be part of a non-profit in southern Arizona, Border Community Alliance, which does tours, lectures, workshops etc., all in the hope of fostering a better understanding between the two sides of the U.S. and Mexico border, of the borderlands, that strange land touching the border which is a country and culture unto itself.
I attended a lecture by Alex La Pierre, that crafty individual mentioned above, who point blank asked if I would like to teach a workshop. A cooking workshop. With people. Paying people looking to learn things. Not disgruntled prep cooks who have to listen to you because you’re their boss and they’re paid to be there. No, the opposite. My inner introvert had a freakout. My outer extrovert also had a freakout but hesitantly said yes?
That was in the late summer of 2017 and since then I’ve been hooked on teaching cooking, because teaching cooking is so very rarely ever about cooking itself. I know, that makes no sense. Bear with me since you’ve made it this far.
Cooking is about geography. Imagine there’s no transportation, no shipping. Go back to what food was when the movement of people and goods was much much slower. The geography of food becomes so evident then. You eat what’s around you, nothing else. This is how cuisines were born. No shipping, no bananas, no strawberries in winter.
Cooking is about history. Or more accurately, it is about conquest. Had the Spanish not conquered the Americas we would all be eating iguanas, duck and deer. Not cows and pigs. But had the Moors not conquered and ruled the Spanish for as long as they did, none of us may have chickpeas. Conquest and history shapes everything you eat.
Cooking is about personal hangups. It’s hard to cover up food hang ups during a cooking class, my own, or those of a student. I don’t have many: the texture of pears and tapioca, inappropriate garnish, the smell of sage grosses me out and I very much draw the line at eating live monkey brains. That’s it. I’ll eat anything else.
I don’t touch onions. I don’t eat fruit, or soups, or vegetables. I don’t eat pasta with shapes. I don’t eat cheese but I’m not lactose intolerant. Olives are gross but I can’t remember the last time I had one. Mushrooms eeww. Beets taste like dirt. I can’t eat that its too crunchy. I can’t eat that its too mushy. I don’t eat any fat. No carbs. I’m doing whole 30 so I can’t eat all this awesome sushi I made. I don’t eat sugar. I asked if they had any dietary restrictions and their refusal to eat the beautiful plum tart I had made resulted in heartbreak. I don’t use salt ever but I don’t know how to make food taste good. Wait, what? This one tilted my head sideways and all I could say was ‘I’m sorry I don’t know how to respond to that.’
I understand there are so many medical reasons why people restrict their diets. I’m one of the lucky ones seemingly lacking in allergies or medical restrictions of any kind. The things is, there are so many more cultural or psychological reasons why people choose what they eat or what they do not eat. Its hard to get rid of the social or family programing of years and simply enjoy food for what it is, a beautiful combination of fuel and art. Food is seen as reward, as punishment, as shame, bribe, manipulation, status, etc.
It’s only dinner folks.
Cooking is about fear. Put a knife and a cutting board in front of someone and watch how the react. There are three reactions. First there is the nonchalant one. Everything is normal, they’re not going to listen to anything I say since they know what they’re doing and is also the most likely to have the most bad knife habits to correct. The second type is the one who instantly picks up the knife and acts like they’re a circus act. Turns the blade this way and that, brings it close to their face, points it at someone else etc. These people end up having the worst knife skills. Don’t be one of these people please. The third kind simply pulls a Bambi. They freeze. They’re scared for their life, limb, liberty and everything they hold dear and take many words of encouragement to get them to pick up the knife. These are my favorite kind of people to get because they’re the most rewarding to work with.
Fear is the thing keeping that person from picking up that knife and I’m not sure I help sometimes by saying ‘Don’t worry, the knife is really sharp so if you cut yourself at least it won’t hurt as much and it’ll heal really fast.’ This is true. A dull knife hurts a lot more, and isn’t the truth supposed to set you free? Free of fear?
Fire isn’t scary. We managed to control fire ages ago, so turning on a stove or an oven shouldn’t be terrifying. Can you burn yourself while cooking? Absolutely. Just like you can burn yourself with a curling iron, yet somehow those hair torture devices do not inspire the same level of terror as a sharp knife.
The most illogical fear of all is the fear of not knowing how to cook so they won’t do it. Cooking isn’t like interviewing for a job you know you won’t get hired for because you need a certain number of years of experience but no one will hire you in the first place. The first thing I will tell someone is I didn’t pick up a knife or a pan and know everything from day one. I burn things. I made things that were bland or overly salty or plain bad. But I didn’t let one bad dish stop me forever. Don’t let that fear, the ‘I don’t know how to cook’ fear stop you there.
What should scare you deep to the core is NOT knowing how to cook. As I write this, March 21st 2020, COVID-19 is making its way around the world. Restaurants are shut down for service, though many are busy selling food to go. Not sure how much longer that will last. Grocery stores are empty of pasta, canned tomatoes and soup, rice and beans. And sure, the flour is gone too so maybe people are home making bread for themselves, making their own pasta. I know I will be. Fancy stone ground semolina pasta dried in the Arizona sun for later use. But I think people are afraid to. Afraid they don’t know how to cook beyond baked chicken breast and spaghetti with jar sauce. That is a much worse fear than that of a cut from a sharp knife or a burn from hot oil.
In the end it all comes down to this about cooking. Cooking is easy. Everything about cooking is cause and effect and time is relative. Cooking involves all of your senses and being able to read a clock is not one of them. Cooking times and recipes are guidelines, sort of like pirate code. They’re not commandments written in stone. This is all you need to know to start cooking. Everything after that becomes repetition, fun and play. Relax while you’re cooking. Have a dance party like I used to when working the line on a Saturday night and the ticket machine did not stop printing.
Just cook. And if you need any help I’m here, and there are many other like me more interested in teaching you how to cook for yourself than just selling you dinner on any given day. I teach at Sur La Table @ Scottsdale Fashion Square, at Tucson Botanical Gardens and Cooking A-Z / Tumacookery in Tubac, the place where I held that first class, that tortilla making workshop I got talked into. All of these places are closed as I write this with uncertain reopening dates. I’ll miss those places while this lasts. I’ll miss seeing the satisfaction happiness on someone’s face when they realize they can do something as easy as sear a skin on chicken thigh or as complicated as a croissant from scratch. There’s so much poking and prodding to get them there, but I do. Day in and out. Someone has to teach them, and I’m more than happy to.