Growing up, we rarely ever ate fast food. My mother cooked, my grandmothers cooked, and we had family dinner every night, with Sunday dinner and holiday dinners sometimes at my grandparents’ houses. That is not to say that we did not have junk food or snacks, but most of the food we ate was homemade. It is not something one really notices because normal is just normal to a kid, but I have fond memories of not only the dinners we had, but also of the cooking itself.
Once I moved to Annapolis and began living on my own, I faced a dilemma. I did not want to eat fast food and I could not afford restaurant food. To my mind, canned, boxed, or other packaged foods were tantamount to fast food in that what is gained in convenience is lost in quality. I simply did not want to eat them, but a person needs to eat. Luckily, as a teenager, when my mother had to work late, she would leave instructions for me, telling me how to prepare dinner so that it was ready for her to serve when she got home. This experience gave me the confidence I needed to at least try to cook for myself.
At the time, I was a vegetarian which limited my cooking options in a good way. It forced me to be creative within certain constraints. Essentially, I had to figure out how to combine a starch and an assortment of vegetables in a way that tasted good and allowed me to stay within my budget. I experimented with different combinations and found some recipes that I really liked. With these as a foundation, I could add, subtract, or substitute different ingredients into the recipes so that I had enough variety as to not get bored.
The necessity to eat, combined with the desire to eat well and the confidence to experiment with different ingredients, recipes, and cooking methods within a restricted palette and budget, all resulted in my being a pretty good cook. If you think about it, that is not a bad recipe for success in life in general. Simply add necessity and desire with inspiration, a healthy set of constraints, and the willingness to fail until you get it right, and you are well on your way to something great.
-Robert Van Valkenburgh teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Kogen Dojo