I used to be sort of an embarrassment in the kitchen. The first meal I cooked was homework for health class. When I told my mom, an excellent cook, about the task, she wanted to know the details of the assignment. ‘What are you planning on cooking?’ she asked. I wasn’t sure. ‘Something healthy was all she said. Lean? Not too fatty?’
‘Well,’ my mom said, ‘that eliminates Filipino food.’
Somehow it was settled that the meal would be baked chicken breast fillets with steamed vegetables. My dad offered to help, partly out of the kindness of his heart but also to make sure I didn’t burn down the kitchen. When it came time to start cooking, I leaned over the stove top to scrutinise its control panel. ‘So what do these buttons do?’
‘Those are peas.’
Things didn’t really advance in college either. I lacked the confidence (and wrist strength) to flip an egg, and each time I attempted to, the egg would splat directly onto the burner. That was breakfast. For dinner, my idea of pasta was boiling dried pasta and microwaving a jar of store-bought marinara sauce to shimmy on top.
I’ve come a long way since those days. My attitudes toward food preparation changed gradually after my attitudes toward food changed dramatically. I realised that a practising vegan on an hourly wage in the most expensive city in America simply cannot get by without making his own food. So I took small steps. I still cooked pasta, but I eventually learned how to make sauce from real ingredients. I came up with about four or five dishes and prepared them repeatedly, until I mastered them in some sense. Then I began replacing the components of these dishes with simlar ingredients I had never used before. Spinach led to kale led to swiss chard, for example. I utilised my mom’s experience in cooking Filipino food to make vegan Filipino dishes. Before I knew it, I was cooking so often that I actually looked forward to it. One time my roommate walked into the kitchen and asked me if I’ve cooked my entire life.
As I mentioned in the last installment of Urchin Eats, I now feel ready to take another step in becoming a more-than-capable cook. First, it was eating healthy. Then came cooking healthy. Now I want to buy healthy, so I can cook and eat even healthier. Because I never cooked for myself when I lived in California, I never bought ingredients for myself either. The few times I would accompany my parents to the farmers market, I would separate from them and beeline immediately to the guy selling tamales from his truck. As I began cooking more often, I would simply buy my produce at the grocery store, and oftentimes the produce would be pre-cut, pre-washed, and in plastics. I had no concept of buying fresh and buying in season, partly because a) I’m from California, where there aren’t any seasons, b) I usually bought the same vegetables on each visit, and c) the grocery store usually had these vegetables all year round.
Eventually, as both my awareness and desire for freshness heightened, I graduated from buying produce from the regular grocery store to the organic/natural grocery store, and I quit buying vegetables in any sort of packaging. After that, I went from the organic/natural grocery store to the local produce market. It is only recently that I have gone from the local produce market to the farmers market to buy my vegetables. Not only that, I am now buying in variety.
The reason I am telling you all this is because I want to keep growing in the kitchen. It is becoming more apparent that whatever you make in your kitchen can certainly affect you not only in different rooms but indoors and outdoors, inside and outside, altogether. The way you prepare food starts with the way you buy your ingredients, and from this beginning can extend a long chain that can dictate your mood, your energy, your well-being, and your physical health. Furthermore, the way you buy your ingredients can even affect those around you, from the people you know personally in your close proximity to possibly strangers you’ll never meet across the country, across the globe even.
This is an introduction to a series of articles called ‘The Seasonal Urchin.’ It will not only document what I buy at farmers markets and what I cook with whatever I buy, but it will also serve as a platform for exploring how food affects people, both in the personal and the political, from the singular to the group.