What’s the first food item you ever learned to prepare?
Mine was toast.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents had a classic two-slice toaster. It was likely received as a gift for “opening a bank account” when banks actually cared about gaining and retaining customers much more than they do now, and likely when they first came to this country. That would make it about 20 years old by the time I was old enough to even eat toast. By the time I was requesting toast, this toaster – which grew so hot to the touch when it was on that it was a fire hazard, especially with its cloth-covered cord (remember those?) – only had two settings: warm bread, and burn it black.
Perhaps because of this, I don’t recall much toast eating in my younger days. I was aware, however, of the delight of the smell of freshly toasted bread; I don’t know if it makes me a strange person for recalling such simple pleasures as opening a freshly purchased loaf of store brand sandwich bread, and opening it up… inhaling that beautiful sweet scent of white sandwich bread… then stuffing the entire first (non-end) piece in my face before making myself a sandwich with the next two non-end pieces… Ahem, excuse me.
In any case, there came a day when I really wanted toast. The toaster scared me, or perhaps had finally given up the ghost; I just remember whining to my father that I wanted toast and what was I supposed to do, why didn’t he buy a new toaster, how do people live without a toaster?!
My father, perhaps frustrated at his youngest child, perhaps fully aware of what lesson this would teach me, perhaps just trying to keep me entertained (or go back to reading the book from which I’d disturbed him), told me to toast bread.
“How?” I exclaimed, a child with zero ability to think outside the box.
“How do you think people used to toast bread before toasters were invented?” he said, and pointed me in the direction of the kitchen. I must’ve looked at him like he were nutso, because I do recall distinctly him telling me that a piece of bread in a dry pan – the small 7″ skillet – were my friends.
“But how long do I do it for?” I am sure I whined.
“Until it’s toasted,” he likely responded, exasperated, eager to return to his book. (My father loved reading… as do I.)
So I went into the kitchen. I am pretty sure I burned the hell out of that first piece of bread; flame too high, me not watching carefully. The next piece likely went too briefly, and became slightly toasty, warm bread, but not quite toast.
Eventually, I became a toast master; I began to quite enjoy toasting bread in a dry skillet, watching carefully for the color change, sniffing carefully for that moment the sugars in the bread start to caramelize; the sense of accomplishment that one feels over something so small, so minute, yet so significant a change to a simple piece of bread.
When my parents finally replaced the toaster, I no longer toasted bread in a dry pan quite as often. In fact, I forgot about this little skill until a few years ago, cooking breakfast at a friend’s new apartment, I suddenly realized he hadn’t a toaster. No matter – I pulled out a small skillet and flexed those toast-making skills.
Still got it.
Try it sometime. See if you can do it properly on the first try. It’s harder – and easier – than you think.
I like to think that my dad knew exactly the many lessons he was teaching me with that simple instruction: go toast some bread using a pan.
1- patience (which I’ve still yet to master)
2- basics are important
3- learn to cook by feel/smell/look, as opposed to “put bread in pan for 6 minutes, then flip”
Funny side note: when I first moved into my current apartment, alone, I was gifted a brand new convection toaster oven, and did not have a slice toaster. The first time I tried to toast bread in the convection toaster oven, I burned it. The second time? Burned to a crisp. Third, fourth, fifth times – same story. Either the instructions were confusing or I failed to fully comprehend them (the knobs need to be adjusted more than the instructions seem to imply); it took me a long time before I felt comfortable walking away while toasting bread in there.
I should have gone back to toasting bread in a dry skillet…
What was the first thing you learned to make?