A sandwich made from two slices of toast, American cheese, and one slice of ham, slightly warmed by a short ten second rotation in the microwave paired with Kool-Aid was the first meal I learned how to cook. I was seven years old, living in New York and I was on a mission in the kitchen. Yes, my first meal wasn’t a spectacularly, scrumptious feast, but I think it was a good start, considering the uninspiring example set by my mom.
My mom hated to cook. When she was younger, the only chore she refused to do was cook dinner. When she got married and had kids, she was forced to cook, but she never did it more often than she had to. It’s not like my mom is a bad cook, she just hated being in the kitchen. I, on the other hand, have always had a great appreciation for the culinary arts and have always been hungry to learn more. When I was in middle school, I decided that, if I wasn’t going to learn family recipes from my mom, then I would turn to my aunts.
My aunts are cooking aficionados. They cook everything from scratch, make use of every ingredient available, and love every minute of it. At their houses, it’s not uncommon to wake up at nine in the morning to a kitchen decorated with freshly peeled vegetables, marinating meat, and a preheated oven. They see cooking as a reward, perhaps even more a luxury. The more people they feed, the happier they are. The more young ones they teach, the prouder they feel. Family recipes to them are like the torch to their legacy. Some of the recipes they use now are the same ones their mother taught them. And, in the future, I’ll pass on those same recipes to my own kids.
When I first asked them to teach me how to cook, my four aunts invited me into the kitchen during every meal they made. I started with a notebook and pen in hand, taking rigorous notes about which ingredients I needed, how much I needed, and when I needed to add what into the pot. Along the way, they would grab my notebook, asking if I had written down that the potatoes go in first or that, if I couldn’t find whole cloves of garlic, then minced garlic would work just as well.
The first dish I made on my own was vanilla flan, a Hispanic custard dessert. My aunt taught me how to make flan during one of her summer visits, telling me that it was a secret recipe. After she left, I tried it on my own, following all of her instructions. The flan was gone in a few hours and all that was left was the residue of homemade caramel at the bottom of the glass plate. To this day, my family still asks me to make my flan and, after the countless times I’ve made it, none of them know all of the ingredients.
Soon all of the staple Puerto Rican dishes were being perfected in my kitchen. Within a year, I had added chicken and rice, pork loin, steak and onions, beef stew, fried cod, and a few other dishes to my repertoire. I was soon a full-fledged Puerto Rican woman in the eyes of my aunts as I could now make a traditional Caribbean meal.
Once I had my family’s recipes flawlessly memorized, I moved on to other types of cuisine. I particularly like making Italian food and homemade burgers. I’m always amazed at how a few changes in seasoning and cheese can create a completely different kind of burger. With this branching out, came the inevitable stage of experimenting.
I soon got the itch to mix together different flavors and ingredients to create my own original recipes. Not all of my experiments were good ideas, but most have led to good reviews from the family. My brother and his friends never fail to ask for my quesadillas every time there’s a party at our house. My sister has even asked for my recipes, so she can make my dishes at her apartment.
I don’t think my recipes are complicated and I don’t think cooking requires a lot of work, but I do think you have to love it. I certainly appreciate the many kitchen lessons that my aunts gave me. They’re some of my favorite memories and I hope to create the same moments for my kids in the future. I didn’t have the most extravagant start with cooking, but, with the support of my aunts and my love for making food, I have easily become the best cook in the house.