Weighing in at 145 pounds with a cell phone in my pocket and pomade in my hair, I am not the most likely candidate for a food obsession worthy of an A&E intervention. No one would guess that when no one is looking, I lick the plate until the Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing has disappeared. Nobody would believe that it was me who ate two slices from someone else's birthday cake an hour before the candles were lit. No would one suspect that, for somebody who lives, breathes, and dreams food, I have no idea how to make it.
Sheltered, my inability to cook enslaved me to my mother's home, where I was guaranteed a hot meal and an endless pantry, even after turning 21. As my friends left for new lives across the country, I stayed in South Jersey, surviving off of my mother's 12 different ways to cook chicken.
Despite my love for free poultry, I eventually became restless with suburbia. I worked a mundane job in a mundane town where the most exciting attraction was CVS. I yearned for a faster life, a more fitting career and the freedom to be myself. I yearned for nearby Philadelphia. After months of planning my escape, I found a magazine internship and a summer sublet in Center City. I finally had the courage to skip town--but not before asking my mother to pack my lunch.
My roommates, all three of them, turned out to be sweet young women who didn't mind the intrusion of my Y chromosome. We laughed, watched movies, and shared stories whenever our busy schedules allowed. Better than the gab, though, was their cooking, which they treated me to with enthusiasm. One roommate was Jewish and another was Iranian, so dinnertime was like a trip to the Middle East, minus the messy car bombs and Holocaust denial.
After a few weeks of enjoying the girls' food, conversation and hospitality, I decided to return the favor by surprising them with a meal. I also hoped to surprise myself, as well, considering I had never cooked anything beyond eggs in my life. I saw this as my opportunity to prove once and for all my independence as a foodie.
I roamed Reading Terminal Market, looking for culinary inspiration. Overwhelmed by the myriad of choices and the Amish beards, I resolved to simply go to the seafood section and grab the first thing I saw. It happened to be squid. "Great choice," I thought. "Who doesn't love calamari?"
However, it's one thing to love calamari--and another to know how to make it. I expected to see tentacles, like octopus, but instead found myself scratching my head at a heap of meaty polygons. Do I boil them or calculate their cosine? I wondered.
Exasperated, I threw the squid in the pan, turned on the stove, threw in some oil, salt, and whatever other cabinet spices grabbed my eye, and hoped for the best.
After 15 minutes, the squid retained the same pale, lifeless, unappetizing hue as when I started. I set the pan aside in disgust, turned off the stove and tried to conjure a plan B. Just as I started praying for some Steak-umms, the sound of sizzling stole my breath. I picked the pan of polygons back up and yelped in horror. I had set the hot pan on the counter. When I lifted it up, a black, circular burn mark stared back, taunting me from the white marble.
After several minutes of cursing the squid, the stove, and my wretched life, I had to think fast. How would I explain this tragedy to the roommates? I instinctively grabbed a vase of flowers from the kitchen windowsill and placed it over the burn. But even in my panic I knew that was ridiculous. I spotted a food processor and placed it there instead. I then concocted an elaborate explanation about how the food processor must have experienced a powerful electric surge, overheated and destroyed the countertop beneath it, unbeknownst to any of us. The expensive counter was ruined, yes, but at least we had our lives--and each other!
My roommates didn't believe that flimsy fairy tale, and I was forced to admit what I had done. Suddenly to them I was no longer the cute little gender anomaly of the house, but instead proof that all men are the same--scheming, lying, and helpless, just like their ex-boyfriends. Apparently the landlord agreed, leaving me with an ungodly repair bill that wiped out my savings and sent me back to South Jersey at the end of the summer.
A few years--and paychecks--later, I once again live in Philadelphia. And yes, when no one is looking, I still lick the plate clean. (I make out with it if Kraft's Asian Sesame sauce is involved) This time, however, I have yet to touch the stove. My mother may have raised a glutton, but she didn't raise no fool.
Gerry Christopher Johnson lives and eats, but does not cook, in Germantown.