When my cousin Alia visited me in Santa Fe last December, she spaced out her few needs over a week's stay. Some, like iced green tea in the mornings and a slight feng shui adjustment to the guest room, were modest. But "teach me how to cook" was a formidable request. For starters, Alia's mother is the finest home cook I know - and she lives with her.
Like any inadvertent teacher, I started with the obvious. If you want to lead someone across a bridge to unknown lands, start with the path of least resistance. Getting someone to cook what they don't want to cook is no easier than trying to get them to eat what they don't want to eat and it's a guaranteed way to get them to hate both it and you. I could have walked Alia through an agonising tutorial on how to cook me my own dream dinner, but none of it would have stuck. Instead, I asked her what she wanted to eat.
She wanted doughnuts. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed a doughnut and I'd certainly never been compelled to make them from scratch. To me, a warm "hot original glazed" from Krispy Kreme tastes like a wad of cake frosting after a float in old fryer oil; Dunkin Donuts is a step below that. Since everyone with access to television, the internet and an appetite - or even just two out of three - practically has to go out of their way to shield themselves from highly fetishised information about food, I'm always most interested in why people have avoided cooking, rather than why they might want to start embracing it.
And so we made doughnuts. I think they were great, but I can't say for sure. I was too busy scrubbing down the film of frying oil that had settled on to my every belonging, then nursing the burns on my forearm from the bubbling splatter.
Making doughnuts with Alia was my last kitchen adventure in Santa Fe before I flew home to Abu Dhabi for the New Year. While I was there, my home in Santa Fe flooded when my hot water supply line burst; by the time it was discovered, the damage was extensive. In the process of adjusting to a new kitchen and lacking my usual arsenal, some personal frustrations have arisen. I burn toast. I'm not used to the new oven and its quirks. The lighting is different; the knives aren't my own. At best, I feel challenged; at worst, I feel like an amputee. When the creative faculties fail, they can't provide any leverage. It's a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, but with a bad attitude, homelessness presents its own host of extenuating circumstances.
If I could write the proverbial letter to my younger self - are there things I wish I'd known? Not really. I don't subscribe to that concept on the premise that I wouldn't be myself without having made my mistakes.
Cooking didn't come naturally to me. The desire to cook was intuitive, but the act itself wasn't driven by instinct. I've made more mistakes, hurt myself more, thrown away more disasters and re-evaluated my interest in making food almost constantly because of my insecurities. If there's one piece of advice I can offer a novice cook, it's that the fear of making mistakes should never stop you. I promise you: I've already made them all first.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
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