Quitting Smoking Has Made Me Learn To Cook For The First Time, And It’s Really Scary

I love food, it’s just I don't know the first thing about it. If anybody starts talking about the intricacies of texture and palate, they might as well be speaking French, or English in a French accent.
Publish date:
February 12, 2013
cooking, travel, recipes, quitting smoking, learning to cook

I don't cook. I basically never cook. I never, ever thought I would find myself writing about cooking and food.

It's not that I hate cooking, or that I don't like cooking - honestly I have never cooked long enough, or tried cooking enough times, to form some sort of opinion. It's just one of those things I've never held a particular interest in and haven’t tried to force.

It's similar to certain TV programmes you know people watch and like, but you just can't be arsed checking out. Or BDSM.

“Sure, I'm exactly the same!” I hear you say. Except you probably still know a few basics. People always say they can't cook, and then they reel off a 'few bits and bobs they can knock up' which reads like the table d'hôte at the Fat Duck.

I promise you, it is not an over exaggeration to say I struggle to follow even the simplest of recipes. The only things I can actually make are eggs, because I love eggs (why did I cross the road? To get to the chicken, and by proxy, eggs).

Let me give you an example of how utterly clueless I am. You know when you move into a new flat and some guy called Noah takes you on a walking tour with a clipboard and you note down everything that's wrong and check that all the appliances function?

Well, I was so uninterested in doing this in my kitchen when renting my place that I only discovered the fridge didn't work after I moved in. And when I say "after" I moved in, I mean it took me about a month to realise.

Another time, my friend was round and saw the oven light was on and expressed surprise, and I had to break it to her that Morrissey was right, there is a light that never goes out, and that was it right there.

The irony is that because I love design, I have a lot of cool stuff in my kitchen. I have the (now somewhat ubiquitous, thanks Girls) Joseph chopping board which features Elvis made from vegetables, I have a lovely original measuring cup with units I don't understand, I have a gorgeous colander and a bread-bin that belongs in a country cottage. I even own an amazing microwave that I love dearly, but that is only because it is bright purple and nicknamed Barney.

It’s all for show. There is more actual graft going on in an IKEA advert or a Habitat shop window. Yup, these amenities are the cooking equivalent of hipster frames without actual lenses.

How do I eat, you wonder. Well, a lot of the time I eat out at restaurants. I don't order a lot of takeaways, because that requires some washing up and washing up falls too much into the 'domesticity' category that I am uncomfortable with. So mostly I eat out. Restaurants, pubs, cafes, it doesn't really matter.

I love food, it’s just I don't know the first thing about it. If anybody starts talking about the intricacies of texture and palate, well, as far as I'm concerned they might as well be speaking French, or English in a French accent. Asking me if something is over-salted is like asking me whether the sea is going to sting. I don't know.

In a way, I am scared of food. I'm not scared of it in the sense that I have an unhealthy relationship with it; instead, I am indifferent. I am a super adventurous, inquisitive and spontaneous person, but when it comes to food, I will order the same thing every time.

Perfectly normal looking, everyday utensils terrify me, a bit like eyelash curlers. Half of them I wouldn't even know the names of – I don’t know the names of half of the vegetables out there. I used to live in Russia and had a friend who was a foodie. I lived in fear of her holding up a more obscure, alien veggie and asking me what it was called in English, because I simply wouldn't have had a clue.

The bits I did know about, I had gleaned from literature, and pop culture, and books, like Matt Damon does in Good Will Hunting. Of course I knew that pasta should be al dente, that you’re nobody without an Aga, and that if you want to sound knowledgeable at a wine tasting you should mention it being ‘tight’.

But then, earlier this year, something changed. I quit smoking. I quit smoking after I came back from travelling around Morocco. These two things, together, changed something.

Previously, cigarettes were basically what I ate. Not literally, but they represented about 60% of my hand to mouth action. Another 20% was slugging coffee, and about 15% was crushing Diet Coke cans. I don't know if you've checked for nutritional value on the side of a pack of Marlboros, but there isn't any.

So, before quitting smoking, I didn't eat a lot. After smoking = I EAT A LOT. I am a food hoover. Jesus fed 5,000 people with one loaf of bread; I feed one person with 5,000 loaves of bread.

Sometimes I find myself just wandering up to random things, street furniture, books etc, and nibbling on them to see if they are edible. I am considering going to see an architect and bringing along a photo of the house in Hansel & Gretel.

I’ll eat a huge doughnut and convince myself this is ok, because 50% of it is hole. I even wonder whether spelling doughnut the British way rather than the American will result in fewer calories. So, I'm eating. And I've started to pay more attention to eating.

In Morocco, I went couch surfing and travelled around the country. Families cooked for me, big huge pots of tagine. I stayed at a retreat in a tiny village with a cook called Rakia who simply made everything, all of it lush. Something about the food in Morocco inspired me to eat better, and maybe even to try cooking.

So when I got home, I bought knives (yeah, I didn’t own knives). I tied my apron springs into a pretty little bow and cut the tags off my oven gloves.

The problem with starting cooking, however, is the fear. The fear of food was still there. It’s embarrassing to feel so inadequate at something that comes naturally to such a lot of people, and this was how I felt even when I was just cooking for myself.

Cooking for other people, well hell, then you gotta be worried about being judged. You see, the thing about cooking is everybody, to an extent, is a connoisseur (everyone apart from me but I think we've already established I am a freak).

Everybody you cook for has a lifetime's experience of eating. If you cook for a 40 year old - yo, that dude's been eating for FORTY years, he knows his shit. If you cook for a 22 year old; hey, they been eating for over 8,000 days. It's scary man.

But I really decided it was time to change. I am 23, it’s time I grow up. I know you hear all this bullshit about women not feeling like women unless they have children, but I feel not like a human for not cooking. It's kind of infantilising, it makes me feel about 12. And that’s just silly when I have my own place and have an addiction to White Russians. The cocktail, I mean.

I feel like if you've had sex, you should be able to cook. And not just because of the endless possibilities conflating the two brings to mind. Well, whipped cream at any rate. And so, I began.

I didn't buy a book or anything, because that would make it too real. And honest to God I have NO room on my bookshelves. I just went on the Internet and found recipes. Being somewhat still ashamed of my new cooking pursuit, I was more nervous of somebody finding recipes in my browser history than porn.

Then, I started to enjoy it. Cooking is very sensuous. It is full of great sounds; hissing, crackling, chopping, knocking, sizzling. Onomatopoeia crushes so hard on cooking. The colours too are immense: orgasm-flushed reds, grassy greens, desert oranges.

The great thing about being inspired by Moroccan food in particular was that tagine, being cooked in a - um, tagine - and eaten by hand, means there is hardly any washing up whatsoever.

So, despite the fact since quitting smoking and discovering cooking I have physically morphed from stickman to a Beryl Cook caricature, I am glad. I feel much more adult. I am somewhat upset that my shiny, sparkling hipster utensils will actually be used, but I'm hoping they'll look better for it, like distressed jeans or scuffed up Converse.

Given a few more weeks I'll be able to name more than two cheeses and tell you the difference between a green and a red chili in a way that someone who’s colour-blind will understand.

I’m making the transition from Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, to Can’t Cook, But Hey, Trying Really Hard.

Check out my progress @ladyhaja.