Life-Changing Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Paste's column on the cookbooks that shape who we are

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In December of 1998, I was six months out of college, had my first real job, and was living in my own apartment for the first time. After several months of take-out, frozen pizza, and meals composed entirely of snacks, my credits cards and my body were worse for wear and I decided it was time to change. How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman, had just come out and was getting lots of attention. I’d walk by it every time I was in a bookstore, taken in by its cheerful yellow cover and the emphatic italicized Everything: How To Cook Everything, it said, followed by “Simple Recipes for Great Food”. This might be it, I thought. This might be the book that will transform me into the adult I want to be. Someone who goes into the kitchen with ease and purpose and turns out good food that is fit for presentation and consumption by other people.

I had just had dinner at a friend’s house, where she served a giant, messy, delicious tofu and sweet potato curry over rice. I sat in the kitchen with her while she cooked, which she did entirely casually, carrying on a conversation, chopping up vegetables, and listening to music. When I asked her for a recipe at the end of the night, she said she didn’t have one; she just made it up as she went along. I had watched her tasting here, adding more salt or spice there, turning the heat down when she mysteriously decided that was necessary—I wanted to do that, too. How To Cook Everything seemed full of promise, like a book of spells I would read and use to create something new. I asked for and received it for Christmas. I was on my way.

The first time I had attempted to make dinner for a group of people, it had been an unmitigated disaster. I was 17 years old, left home alone for a long summer weekend for the first time, and desperate to impress my best friend and two guys we’d been hanging out with over the past month. Another 17-year-old might have used her parents’ absence and an empty house as an excuse to throw a wild, teen movie style kegger with motorcycles driving through the living room window and down the rec room stairs and metal bands staging an epic Battle of the Bands on the front lawn, and the thought did cross my mind, but I wanted to do something sophisticated. Mature. Adult. I wanted to host a dinner party. Until that fateful evening, I had never done much cooking for other people beyond the occasional spaghetti from a jar over pasta. I decided to be daring and serve my friends spicy shrimp and tomatoes over polenta, which I had had at another friend’s house several months before. I didn’t have a recipe for this dish, but I figured it couldn’t be too difficult. I drove to the grocery store and bought a ring of frozen cooked shrimp, which cost a full day of my salary as a day camp counselor, a can of crushed tomatoes (despite the fact that there were delicious tomatoes growing behind my house in my mother’s garden), and a box of instant polenta. I drove home, unloaded my groceries (my groceries!), took a deep breath, and got to work. I served the meal at a candlelit table with cloth napkins, bursting with pride, feeling as if I was taking part in some sort of ritual or ceremony, that the act of serving a meal to a group of friends would transform me in some definite, subtle yet palpable way.

As soon as I took the first bite, I wanted to yank the tablecloth off the table and take every plate with it. The shrimp was rubbery, the tomatoes were mealy, the polenta was crunchy, and worst of all, none of this mattered because I had doused everything in way too much cayenne pepper, rendering everything inedible. Thankfully, I was spared sitting through the horror of my guests politely choking down their portions; there was no politeness to be had as everyone spit out their first mouthfuls, jumped up from the table, and insisted we just go to McDonald’s like they’d wanted to do in the first place. Cooking’s not for me, I decided, scraping the expensive failure into the trashcan, blowing out the candles, and hoping my best friend would spot me some Happy Meal money.

Cooking well seemed to me to be an inherent gift that some people were just born with. In June of 1998, I was about to graduate from college. I went to a friend’s apartment for a celebratory dinner. She served a roast chicken with garlic, mashed potatoes, and grilled asparagus. It was as if she had invited a few people over and casually unfurled a pair of wings she’d been hiding under her clothes. How did she do this? I tasted grilled asparagus for the first time during this meal—how did she know to grill instead of steam? Where did one go to learn these secrets? This woman and I had gone through four years of school together; now we were almost done and she was able to cook and serve an entire well-balanced, attractive, delicious meal for a group of friends. I was still pouring jarred spaghetti sauce over usually overcooked pasta on a good day. I felt immature, stunted, and lacking. It seemed to me that the ultimate sign of being a grown, capable adult was not only being able to feed oneself, but to be able to feed a group of people. The idea of having to prepare an entire meal for anyone other than me filled me with panic and dread. The fact that I had several job interviews lined up, that I had plans to leave the small town I was from and move to Boston as soon as possible, which I did just a few months later, suddenly meant very little to me. Cooking seemed so basic but so necessary and so impossible. Six months later, How To Cook Everything offered hope. Everything. Simple. Great Food. Tell me your secrets, Mark Bittman!

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