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How I Learned to Cook for 50 by Being a Vegetarian Idiot

05/22/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

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My cooking begins with stupidity.

I moved into a vegetarian cooperative house my sophomore year at Stanford for the ostensible purpose of managing the garden. With cloudy knowledge and enough supplies, I could manage. Mint grows fast. Tomatoes love the heat. Herb gardens: a little goes a long way. Double dig struggling beds. Easy enough.

I had a vague idea of the other responsibilities, too: cooking, scrubbing bathrooms, vacuuming, asking other people to be neater with their stuff. But here's a kitchen confidential: no number of tools could make up for my culinary intimidation. The gigantic rocket booster of a stove caked with the vegetarian plaque of the ages. The spice rack packed with powdered flavors I couldn't pronounce. The prospect of cooking for 50 people who all seemed like they could make incredible food.

When I moved in, I only knew how to cook eggs, and even then, they only tasted good because queen Sriracha had graced us with her presence. During my first shift on cook crew, the head cook asked me to dice five onions. I slyly stepped out to "go to the bathroom," that is, "call my mom and have her direct my hands in cutting an onion."

Chopping an onion becomes a routine gesture. Not so cooking for 50. Looking at two 3'x2'x1/2' oven pans and wondering how on earth to make six cubic feet of lasagna will always inspire vertigo. By my senior year, I had cooked for such an audience a dozen times, but I still stared at the recipe wondering, "Feeds five? Can we actually scale this to ten times the original and make it edible? Maybe even tasty?"

Many alternative living spaces invest in the seasonal produce of the area. It's great, especially in California. The food is so fresh. But what do I do with chard? But only through the foolishness of eating a leaf raw, then sadly stir fried, then badly baked could I realize all the ways chard can be delicious.

And this house, like most student-run organizations, had minor mishaps. Ingredients went missing or were never there. I started a grease fire. We burned the whole dinner. Figure it out! Trial by stir fry! Make it wok!

The worst and most consequential of these mistakes came when I triggered an allergic reaction in my friend. I fed her a cashew milkshake, knowing but not remembering she had a severe nut allergy especially attuned to cashews. She spent the next ten hours passing in and out, and vomiting. I spent them trying to reconcile my supposed virtue of culinary innocence with my actual idiocy. Real problems had arisen from not paying attention to the details I had convinced myself didn't matter. With the idea of providing a vegan dessert I had provided autoimmune poison.

*****

Some advice from the kitchen idiot: never cook while you're starving. You'll hate and overstuff yourself. Play with your food. Start with a recipe and burn the piece of paper after you tentatively grasp it. Cook for a lot of people. And whatever you have at the end, just send it out. This will inspire confidence (you did it!) and beneficial reflection (the lasagna could have been less watery). That said, learn to recognize which details are important and what you can fudge.

I urge new cooks to make mistakes. We all do, even professionals. To learn to cook is to truly understand trial and error. If you watch even five minutes of Top Chef you'll hear expletives muttered (screamed) at the pan. Cooking is one of the last disciplines where watching a YouTube tutorial will only get you a quarter of the way, as I learned recently with trying to quarter a chicken (disaster). The nerves of this process lessen in the presence of friends who are also learning.

And I'm still struggling. Meat continues to be a mystery to me. I regularly burn minced garlic because I haven't mastered its fickle timing (I know it's after the onion but how long after?). I read recipes all day at Cozymeal, but I find following exact measurements impossible and, frankly, unnecessary in the face of having to feed a multitude. Getting dinner on the table on time is far more vital than the precise ratio of cinnamon to cream.

The upside of this stupidity is that I retain a fearlessness that I don't see in peers who eschewed my trial by grease fire: when something goes wrong, stride ahead. Fake it till you plate it. We may not have intended the zucchini for the blender, but here we are with salty mush that will make a great soup. This pizza now needs to be vegan? Blend up some nuts for cheese. Preferably not cashews. Let's do this.