I was once in the Navy, stationed, among other places in Washington D.C. I and two other guys were assigned to the Navy Annex in the Anacostia area. Back then it was surrounded by a pretty dicey neighborhood (which included the only bright purple funeral home I’ve ever seen). We were assigned to a barracks that housed a lot of Marines and just a few of us swabbies. As I remember it, the barracks, a shabby wooden structure, had actually been condemned and through one of those miraculous federal loopholes we were able to apply for BAQ (Basic/Bachelor? Allowance for Quarters) – essentially a stipend to pay for housing off-base in the civilian world. So the three of us went off looking for housing in the neighborhoods of Washington. What we found could only have been found in the late 70s. We rented an “apartment” (really just 1-1/2 rooms plus a small bath) in the basement of a brownstone on “O” street, near Dupont Circle (then the center of the counter-culture in DC), around the corner from the “P” Street Beach and a pleasant walk from Georgetown.
The owners both worked for the Navy and we were told the house had been the residence of one of the scions of George Palmer Putnam of the G.P. Putnam & Sons Publishing Co. (some research on my part shows that he was George H. Putnam, 8th Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939). Where we lived was the former servant’s quarters which still had the speaker tubes embedded in the walls that allowed the original owners to communicate with the servants quarters without having to go up or down stairs (the house was three stories, not including the basement).
When we moved in I asked if either of the other guys could cook. They said “no”, so I struck a bargain – I would do all the cooking and they would do all the cleaning. Best deal I ever made. Now, I didn’t really know how to cook but I could make a few passable things and I was willing to learn. I had watched my mother cook for years. She was a full-time homemaker and she cooked most things from scratch. Because I got home from school well before supper time, I was witness to the preparations of all kinds of food and the techniques of cooking it. While I was never involved in the actual cooking except for occasionally snitching a bite of something within reach, I learned a lot about the process of turning food into a meal.
The first “recipe” I ever asked her for was for what we called “barbecued chicken”. Once, while in college I ended up in an informal chicken barbecue cook-off among friends and I called my mom to ask how she made barbecue chicken, a recipe adapted from the Niagara County Fair where they cooked hundreds of half-chickens over a 50′ charcoal pit and used pitchforks to turn the meat. People would line up to wait until the chickens were done at noon. A couple of bucks would get you half a chicken, coleslaw, corn on the cob, roll and butter, and beverage.
Turns out what we make was more a “grilled” chicken and not a true barbeque but what I made tasted good and, as I remember it, my chicken came out on top (even though my competition claimed I cheated by not cooking an actual barbeque chicken).
Back at the DC “apartment”, I was struggling to put food on the table. Once I tried a recipe that one of the Latino tenants, who lived on the third floor, assured me was easy and tasty. It involved sauteing rice in some oil and then putting in some chicken and vegetables. In hind-sight the procedure was essentially what one does with Rice-a-Roni, although I had never had that and didn’t know it at the time. Well, I used WAY TOO MUCH OIL and the whole dish was inedible! Basically rice, flabby chicken and vegetables swimming in oil. I think we had frozen pizza that night.
We (the room-mates) were all studying languages at the Crowell-Collier Institute (under contract to the Department of Defense). One of the guys was studying Mandarin and to advance his language skills he started going to a local Chinese church (I think Methodist) for its social hour mostly to meet girls and maybe practice his Mandarin. One of the things he brought back with him one day was a Ladies-aid type cookbook, printed on a mimeograph, but with some good basic Chinese recipes – was that his way of giving me a hint?.
A cook was born. I still make my rice (long grain or short grain) using the method from that cookbook. Although I haven’t used an actual recipe from that book in over two decades, I’m pretty sure that my basic “Chinese” stir fry technique would closely parallel what I learned in that cookbook. I haven’t seen the original cookbook in years although I think it’s still in the house somewhere. It’s certainly in my cook’s “heart”.
Over the years I’ve attempted to cook most things from scratch. I’ve tried foods from many different cultures. I’ve welcomed the increase in variety of foods in the market. In my marriage, I’ve gradually become the “head” cook, probably cooking 95% of the meals in our house.
So, how does a guy start cooking. I started by cooking – out of necessity; and a deep memory of food, plain and simple, cooked from scratch each day by my mother.
Post Script: One of the off-shoots of my, long ago, “I’ll cook – you clean” deal, was that I was then, and still am, profligate in my use of pots and pans. That habit has persisted, now 40+ years later. Just ask my wife.