When my oldest daughter, Grace, left for college, we had the usual awkward airport conversation. Everything important, it seemed, had already been said; instead, we made small talk about food and cooking, always a comfortable common ground.
I gave my daughter some last-minute advice: “Buy some rice; it will be handy for all sorts of suppers.” As Grace walked towards the security line, I gave her some ideas for leftovers. And then, after hugs and kisses, she was gone.
I watched for her final wave after she cleared security, but only one thought came through the tears: “I never taught Grace how to cook rice!”
Grace was going to an international college in the Netherlands; she left in such a flurry that time and money prevented us from accompanying her. As I helped Grace pack her bags, I should have been fretting about the documents for her residence permit, or how to open a Dutch bank account. Instead, I focused my concerns on what she would be eating.
Grace would be living in a house with 10 other kids and no cafeteria. In some houses the kids ate together, sharing a big friendly international meal. In others, students labeled their food, made their own suppers, and ate either with others or alone in their rooms. Grace wouldn’t know her fate until she reached her house.
There were obvious things to consider. How equipped would her kitchen be? How would she navigate foreign markets and grocery stores when she didn’t speak Dutch? Most worrisome: Did Grace know how to cook?
I had always meant to teach my kids to cook. But I had also planned to raise them bilingually; that hadn’t happened, either. Neither had the summer classes I daydreamed about, where I would teach them to make pastry cream, crème anglaise, and ice cream. When they were teenagers, cooking dinner weekly was on the chore list, but it happened infrequently.
Just before my daughter was going off on her own with no one to feed her, I recognized my failure. I spent that final week madly typing up vague recipes for tomato sauce, spaghetti carbonara, and pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs (our family’s go-to pantry supper).
But I needn’t have worried. Grace settled quickly into her new life in Middelburg, the small capital city of the most southwestern Dutch province, Zeeland. Soon after she arrived, we were hearing descriptions of the weekly market on the square in front of the Gothic town hall. Her first stabs at Dutch were made buying onions from the produce man, warm stroopwaffel (a lovely waffle/syrup sandwich cookie) from the waffle man, and herring sandwiches from the handsome fish man. “The herring is so fresh,” she wrote. “He lays a raw fillet out on the soft roll, chops up some onions, and sprinkles them on top.”
I started looking at food differently, thinking again like a college student. Always on the lookout for inexpensive, delicious, and filling foods, I sent Grace recipes gleaned from books and magazines. Epicurious was an invaluable tool; imagine having that many recipes at your fingertips when starting out! My mother-in-law, who’s Czech, supplied several hearty Central European soup recipes, the type that you can make in quantity and stretch easily for extra friends. And one happy morning I logged onto Facebook and read Grace’s tagline: “Grace is pleased with herself; she made borscht last night.”
Though Grace’s housemates didn’t all gather regularly for shared dinners, soon enough she was having dinners with new friends there and in other houses. Email requests for recipes arrived, along with questions about the safety of eating week-old polenta. She learned to buy what was ripe and cheap at the market, which meant learning to cook Dutch food like stamppot (kale, potatoes, and sausage simmered together). Soon she was exploring beyond the market, finding ethnic shops on side streets and making Caribbean feasts with fried plantains. (She had lived in the Dominican Republic for six months after high school.) Grace was cooking.
Why did Grace take to it so quickly and easily? Obviously, a certain amount about cooking one learns indirectly. When I asked her about it, she described learning to cook as a list of requests: “Grace, will you chop an onion? Grace, will you pick some oregano from the garden? Grace, will you keep your eye on the sauce?” I might not have shown her how to chop an onion, but over the years, she had watched me chop thousands.
But I’m also convinced there was something else, something subtler but more significant. I grew up with a mother who was a professional cook, but I don’t remember ever being given any direct cooking instruction. When we wanted cookies, we baked. If there was no dessert on a night my parents were out, we opened a cookbook and made zabaglione. What Grace and I both had were families where food and eating were central.
That’s not to say we ate extravagant meals often. We both grew up eating simply: pasta, beans, fresh vegetables and fruits. But conversation revolved around food, its gathering, preparation, and flavors. If our supper was tortillas, with only pinto beans, onions, and cilantro, we had plenty to discuss: the beans’ silky texture and earthy flavor, the sharpness or sweetness of the onion, and why one kid preferred flour to corn tortillas. The kids gained a sense of which foods were in season when.
When Grace was nine, my parents took her to Europe for a couple of months. She kept a journal of that trip; each day’s entry was mainly about the food she’d eaten. The usual suspects were there — croissants in France, every ice-cream flavor imaginable in Italy (meringue was her favorite). But there were also surprises. She ate her first raw herring, holding it by the tail and eating it whole. And she tried snail tortellini.
When I asked why she ordered them — I never would have — her answer was remarkably mature: “I thought I ought to try them.” She didn’t like them, but she gave them a chance.
Grace had learned to eat, and she was hungry.
In early November, Grace started to think about Thanksgiving. She’d have school that day (it’s not a Dutch holiday), but she wanted her Thanksgiving dinner. She never doubted that she could make a feast for 12 kids, in a poorly equipped, ovenless kitchen. Since Thursday would be market day, she would buy three spit-roasted chickens, freeing her to prepare the side dishes. A flurry of emails crossed the ocean, giving stuffing recipes, dealing with the dearth of yams, and sharing her excitement at finding canned cranberries.
On Thanksgiving Day, it all came together, complete with Brussels sprouts, stuffing, and gravy. She did have a near miss with the mashed potatoes when she almost added yogurt (yogurt comes in cartons there) instead of milk, but that could happen to anyone. For dessert she made apple compote — not exactly traditional, but definitely autumnal. Her feast was a success.
Grace cooks regularly now; it’s relaxing, and a welcome respite from studies and parties. Her hunger for food and all it entails has made cooking a necessity; the actual cooking is now just another basic part of food, eating, and life. It’s something to be done, and something to enjoy. There’s a lot of trial and error, but Grace knows what tastes good. With that base, she can learn to cook anything.
Giovanna Remolif Zivny is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in Gourmet magazine, and she’s also written on Culinate about baking powder.
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