I just finished reading a Mark Bittman excerpt about how he learned to cook at Salon.com. His was a largely accidental and practical journey. It’s a path that I would assume resonates with a lot of people. And from the perspective of a child of parents of his generation who had a very similar approach to cooking I think I learned from my parental units the same way Bittman's eldest daughter learned from him. My parents were no fuss, fresh ingredient oriented, aging hippies as well.
My father went through various cooking “phases” where he would become enamored of the cooking styles of his Italian ancestry (kicking off a Marcella Hazan exploration that I was unappreciative of until I was much older) or lavish annual Memorial Day and Christmas Eve parties (which could account for my masochistic urge to host dozens of friends for sit down dinners). In our house however, my father was the “special occasion” cook (although to be fair that has completely shifted in recent years).
When my siblings and I were children my mother was responsible for the day-to-day nourishment of the family. It was a skill she didn’t pick up until she was an adult. It was my father who taught her to cook in the early days of their relationship. My father-the product of a woman who was decades ahead of her time as a working mother in the 1950s and thought that there were more interesting things a woman should do than just cook and entertain (go Gram!)-taught himself to cook mostly out of self-preservation. My paternal grandmother is a spitfire, a fantastic dancer and so vivacious at 90+ that I feel old by comparison, but a stellar cook she is not.
My mother grew up in the exact opposite environment. My maternal grandmother is a fantastic cook, incapable of cooking for a group smaller than 20. Another skill I may have inherited, but in her case a well-justified habit. She fed a family of 10 three meals every day. The sheer logistics involved in that scale of cooking meant my mother never learned how to cook from her mother. My guess is it was easier for my grandmother to delegate care of my mother’s seven younger siblings and household chores to the elder kids than it was to teach them how to use knives and fire safely.
By the time I was old enough to register what was entailed in cooking, my mother was a very proficient cook with an experimental streak that grew as we got older. I don’t remember specifically being taught to cook. I do remember messing around periodically in the kitchen. Our first microwave was particularly entertaining—like an easy bake oven on steroids. In high school my best friend from down the street and I experimented a lot with stir frys for a full summer. And there were a lot of “fancy dinner” parties with my friends that had more to do with dressing up than cooking.
What really launched my interest in cooking were too rather pedestrian impulses: I like to eat and was too poor to eat out as a recent grad living in New York and I hate doing dishes. The first was a rather obvious impetus: survival. The second was a literal cause and reaction. The rule at our large family gatherings is the cooks don’t do the dishes. I hate doing dishes. It seemed only logical to start volunteering to cook side dishes. Which evolved into increasing experimentation, a cooking club with friends, the eventual masochistic urge to take over family holiday dinners and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.