When I was in graduate school, I was tasked with introducing a prospective student to the nearby town. He asked about restaurants and I started to talk about my favorite Thai place and a spot for weekend dim sum, but he cut me off. He meant cheap food. Like take-out every day for every meal. When I stared at him, he follow up bluntly, “I can’t boil toast.” That same student went on to a technical PhD program, one that involved high-level math and handling sensitive scientific equipment. But cooking? No way. He had tried it a few times and it had always gone poorly. It wasn’t even worth trying again. He knew he would mess that up.
I find the idea of messing up while cooking a bit odd. Things might go in an unexpected direction, but you just taste it and adjust. Add some salt, add some acid, add some liquid, or let some boil off. Right? But my childhood had bred many of the common skills of cooking right into my comfort zone. I started using an electric mixer when I still had to stand on a chair to reach the table. My grandfather let my cousins and me (ages 4-7) help him grind and stuff sausage from scratch. And when I stepped into science classrooms, those experiences made what could have seemed like intimidating equipment feel familiar. Bunsen burners and centrifuges felt like things I should be able to learn how to use.
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