Until very recently I was very bad at cooking. It’s not that I couldn’t follow a recipe—I had successfully made a few simple things like the New York Times’ pistachio lemon bars, along with fluffy buttermilk biscuits, egg salad, and a quesadilla or two. The main problem was that I was lazy, confused, and intimidated. Lazy in that I did not try to make time for cooking and was content to rely on microwave meals and protein bars; confused in that I didn’t really know where to begin; and intimidated because every time I watched a cooking video, it would show someone who is brilliant at making things demonstrating how to make it perfectly, and my own attempts to replicate it would be feeble. Worse, I wouldn’t know why I was going wrong.
For three years back in college, I lived with my Current Affairs colleague Oren Nimni, and the only bad part about living with Oren was that he knew how to cook. I’d see him making delicious hamentaschen, baking bread, or assembling elaborate, romantic meals for dates. And I’d sit with my Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza and wish I could do some of that myself. But as I say, I was lazy—or, to be more charitable to myself, busy—and I never bothered to ask Oren to teach me. (Nor did I ever ask my mom, who makes delicious things and also would happily have taught me.)
Well, eventually I decided I was sick of depressing microwave meals and boring protein bars. I asked Oren if he’d finally teach me how to cook, and he readily agreed. We filmed the whole process, and turned it into a YouTube show called “Cooking For The Clueless.”
As I say, in most cooking shows you watch an expert do something well. In ours, you watch a non-expert (me) do something poorly, but slowly learn how to do it better. My hope is that because I began the process at such an utterly useless level, others who are in the same place might come to feel a little less embarrassed about their own lack of culinary skills.
I didn’t just want Oren to teach me “cooking skills,” though. In fact, another reason our show is a little different than usual is that it’s less about how to cook and more about how to think about food and how to incorporate homemade food into your life. A major reason for my dependence on readymade items was that I didn’t really know how to answer the question “What should I eat?” I didn’t know how to stock up on things I would actually use, or how to look at a pantry full of ingredients and come up with the answer to the question “What can I make for breakfast today?” If you’re going to incorporate cooking into your day-to-day life, you don’t just need a book of recipes to follow and the skills necessary to follow them. You need to be able to think about what it is you’re going to want to eat at what times of the day, and which things will last a few days in the fridge. One of the things that always impressed me so much about Oren’s cooking was that he managed to cook so casually. He would just wake up and make something. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed by the very act of trying to decide on something out of the whole universe of possible things to eat. That’s why I’d just go to a cafe and pick something off the menu. (When you’re a vegetarian in New Orleans, there’s usually only one thing on the menu you can eat, which eliminates the analysis paralysis problem.)
So Oren starts me out very simply, by thinking of small ways I can incorporate items I’d make at home into my day-to-day diet. For instance, we talk about breakfast, and how when I wake up I could make some instant oatmeal with blueberries, or an egg-in-the-hole. Both relatively healthy, quick, and not requiring much thought. We go through the process of making both, and at the end I felt like I had a better command not of “cooking” but of Breakfast. I now have two go-to answers to the question “What Shall I Have For Breakfast Today?”
We begin our YouTube series just by going through the existing contents of my pantry, which had been stocked with things that I thought a pantry ought to have (e.g. corn starch, vinegar) rather than things I actually knew how to use. (The highest compliment Oren can muster about my pantry contents is: “Some of these things could make a meal if they weren’t expired.”) In this first episode, Oren helps me ask what should be an obvious question: “Is This Useful?” And in fact, since filming the show I’ve completely overhauled my pantry. I bought a bunch of glass jars, on the theory that if everything were in glass jars rather than branded packets I would better appreciate their true essences and be inspired to make things. It looks like this now:
This theory may sound silly, but it works! I look at the jar of cornmeal and I get excited about making cornbread. I look at the oats and I want oatmeal. The red beans inspire me to make red beans and rice. I am proud of my jar system.
In the course of our videos, Oren teaches me how to make quiche, lasagna, salad, sandwiches, roasted vegetables, purees, cookies, and tacos. But the particular dishes aren’t really the point. He wanted to teach me how to be confident in making things, and how to pick ingredients that will go well together. He wanted to “demystify” cooking. In our second video, he does this in a very simple way, by showing how ordinary cream becomes whipped cream. (You just whip it.) It should be obvious, but what he’s doing is helping me grasp the power of simple human intervention to transform things into other things. It’s a confidence-building exercise. I can whip this. I can change the world, if only in the tiniest of ways.
You may find “Cooking For The Clueless” a little odd. We don’t cut the boring bits of cooking. You will watch us make the stuff from beginning to end, so if I have to cut a damned sweet potato for minutes upon minutes, you have to watch me do it. This is a realistic cooking show, with the screw-ups intact. We rented a kitchen for the filming (my kitchen, which does appear in Episode 14, is too tiny for a show like this), and sometimes it was lacking in rather essential equipment—e.g., a can opener. Our “cookies” episode is particularly bungled, though the cookies came out pretty tasty nonetheless.
Oren has an interesting philosophy of cooking. Over the course of the series he says over and over that as long as something doesn’t poison you, then the only thing that matters in determining whether you’re doing something “right” is whether you like it. Yes, a professional chef would chop the vegetables more quickly and elegantly, and you can learn those skills over time, but so long as they get chopped, and you don’t slice a finger off, you don’t need to feel like an “amateur.” We used store-bought pasta sauce to make a lasagna in one of the episodes, which will undoubtedly horrify many, but we did it because I’m taking things step by step, and trying to find ways to incorporate homemade food that aren’t going to overwhelm me. Later on, we may tackle the making of sauces, and perhaps I’ll even enjoy it. For now, at least my lasagnas aren’t coming out of a box.
I like Oren’s cooking philosophy because it has a certain “democratic” quality to it: it’s okay to break the “rules,” he says, so long as you’re making things you like and not poisoning yourself. In the videos, we discuss my (only half-serious) theory that the popular Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille has certain neoliberal assumptions buried in its message: the film depicts a talented rat who is unjustly kept from being a chef because he is a rat, and the message is that “anyone can cook.” It seems to mean by this that if you’re a talented individual, it shouldn’t matter who you are, because any person could turn out to be a talented chef. But Oren has a different take on the movie, which is “everyone can cook,” meaning that everyone can develop their own capacity to make things. Forget having “talent,” what matters is that you find what you like and figure out how to make it. I suppose this is so simple that I should have always known it. But I didn’t, in part because I felt cooking was about making impressive things rather than quite mundane ones. Egg-in-a-hole and a cup of coffee? Fine. As long as you like it, it doesn’t poison you, and you can incorporate it into your routine.
At the end of our series, as you’ll see, Oren sets me a challenge: I have to make a meal for him using what I’ve learned. Most of our series is focused on food that isn’t particularly fancy, but we do have a part on how to cook for other people, and there you do want to think about how to impress. I won’t spoil the finale for you, but you will get to see me in a frantic scramble to produce something to impress Oren in a tiny kitchen in a short amount of time.
I am still not a very good cook. But I am now someone who cooks, meaning that I make most of my meals rather than buying them premade. As a gift at the end of the series, Oren buys me a food processor and a nonstick pan, and I now use them every day. The stuff I make isn’t too interesting (I do a lot of smoothies for lunch, a lot of pasta and vegetables for dinner) but one of the things I’ve learned is that pretty much anything you make at home tastes better and is healthier than the equivalent bought from a store or restaurant. I don’t know why that is (besides, probably, excessive sodium and preservatives).
Oren taught me a few simple things that have really improved my eating habits. Seasoning things, even just with salt and pepper, turns out to be important—who knew? Toasting your sandwich bread, or your tortilla, will improve your sandwich or taco, because a mixture of crunchy and soft textures is better than just soft textures. Olive oil is magical. These are things you probably knew, but I didn’t.
I hope you enjoy our series. I don’t know that it will teach anyone how to cook, but what I do hope is that it will give you the confidence not to be embarrassed at your lack of ability to do something. I also think it gets at some of the more practical questions that cooking lessons often don’t discuss, like how to figure out what you like to eat and what to buy at the grocery store. Oren’s a great teacher and friend who has a deeply egalitarian ethos, and my favorite thing about the series is the way it has an underlying faith in the ability of even clueless people like myself to accomplish things in the kitchen that will make them proud—and taste good.
Cooking For The Clueless episodes are currently being released daily on the Current Affairs YouTube channel. Videos will be added here as they are released.
Episode 1: The Existing Contents Of Nathan’s Pantry
Episode 2: Whipped Cream & The Demystification of Cooking
Episode 4: Breakfast: Oatmeal and a Cup of Coffee
Episode 6: Breakfast: Egg in the Hole
Episode 7: How To Not Be Intimidated By Your Groceries
Episode 10: How To Make Dinner For Someone, Part I
Episode 11: How To Make Dinner For Someone, Part II
Episode 12: An Attempt At Cookies
Episode 13: Wrap Up & Reflections on a Socialist Philosophy of Cooking
Episode 14: Challenge: Attempting To Make A Meal For Someone Else
Episode 15: Evaluating The Meal