In the wake of her debut post for PRK, BU journalism student Megan Riesz chronicles, below, her first attempts at basic survival: cooking for herself in college.
I can still recall the feeling of bewilderment that came over me while helping my roommate unpack his pots and pans into our kitchen almost two years ago. As I shoved those once-foreign utensils into whatever drawer was nearby, I wondered if I would ever take them out again – aside from when I needed to boil water to make Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
Although Dean Elmore (BU’s Dean of Students) wouldn’t like to hear me say it, I couldn’t wait to move off campus. But I was severely unprepared to cook for myself, having had access to a fully stocked dining hall as a freshman and having been raised by parents who preferred takeout. Going to Shaw’s Supermarket for the first time was so overwhelming that I went for a few Lean Cuisines and, to make quick quesadillas, tortillas and shredded cheese. Plus hummus, of course.
I survived on meager meals and snacks for weeks until I realized I had to make a concentrated effort to learn how to make food, otherwise my physical and mental health would rapidly deteriorate. Ever since, of all the recipes I accrued and realized in my Allston apartment, nearly all include my now-favorite ingredient: chicken.
I’ve had my attempts at vegetarianism, even veganism (the latter lasted six hours), but chicken is too high in protein – and deliciously satisfying when grilled and spiced – to ignore. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices, wondering what the real difference was between thinly sliced breasts and regular breasts, I went with the breasts. Cutting off the fat didn’t occur to me, so I dialed the stove up to level ten, sprayed it with Pam and plopped the breast right on the pan. Salt and pepper were the only “seasonings” we had. In a matter of minutes, I had a sadly seasoned chicken that was deceptively raw. I opted for hummus.
My roommate took pity on me that night. “Yes, Megan,” he explained, “you have to cut up the breast, because eating raw meat can result in E. coli!”
So I mastered the art of eliminating fat and grilling nicely sliced, civilized breasts. But that was only Step One. Since I’ve never had any personal connection to the chefs at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, I was largely unaware that items like “paprika” and “thyme” existed. Maybe an exaggeration, but the point remains.
Then I remembered one of my mom’s (few) recipes for lemon garlic chicken. Perhaps not the most innovative dish, but an option nonetheless. The first time I squeezed an entire lemon over my sliced chicken, the pan erupted in a series of loud crackles and I jumped back in fright. After coating both sides of each piece with garlic and pepper seasoning and sliding them onto the biggest plate I’d yet used, I wolfed down what would go down in history as the best – and first legitimate – meal I had yet made. I was 19 years old.
Two years later, cooking has evolved from an annoying necessity to an opportunity for chatting and friendly collaboration, with a hint of nostalgia. The pinnacle of my achievements remains a chicken cordon bleu, wrapped in prosciutto instead of ham (I always enlist some help with the wrapping). Not only does it rival anything I’ve ever eaten in an American restaurant, it’s also the manifestation of a life skill I’ve learned. Delayed gratification.
I can’t say I’m able to cook much beyond chicken, or the sautéed mushrooms and fried peppers that usually serve as side dishes. But it’s a start. All I know is there’s a lot more I can do with meat – how to fashion to fit my particular mood, cravings and time allotment – than a frozen meal, which only exacerbates every college student’s on-the-go m-o. Imagine what I could do if I strayed from poultry.
Megan Riesz interns for The Christian Science Monitor. She can be reached via Twitter @meganreisz