The first meal I ever cooked? If we’re talking about assembly, I probably made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while before this memory. In a rare early-foodie moment, I remember explaining to my little sister that open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were “my way” of making them. When I made lunch one day, she got to choose which style of sandwich she wanted: my way, or the regular way. To be fair, my way had more peanut butter and more jelly.
But when I first read Gluten-Free Girl‘s Twitter assignment (“write about the first thing you ever cooked”), I knew that it was heat, change, and alchemy that meant cooking for me. The first meal I remember cooking was a grilled cheese sandwich on a coffee can.
I learned how to make this sandwich as a Brownie (get it?), so I must have been in second or third grade. Come to think of it, my best Brownie memories involve food and open fires: “dough boys” (crescent rolls wrapped around a stick, toasted over an open fire) and toasted marshmallows in order to make s’mores. And the grilled cheese, cooked over an inverted coffee can.
Here’s how we made the sandwiches: A grownup cut a ventilation door in a clean Folgers coffee can. Then we turned the coffee can over an open fire, placing the already-assembled, buttered sandwich on top. We’d learned how to build a fire, after all: we were Girl Scouts in the making.
The sandwich itself: what I remember is the netting of perfectly caramelized whole-wheat bread, wrapped around a bed of sharp orange cheddar. The grains in the bread were toasted and nutty, and while I had never liked sharp cheddar before, it was just right for this sandwich.In an age of spongy Roman Meal, the whole-grain toasted bread was especially lovely. I remember sitting in my troop leader’s backyard, sitting on her wooden deck, waiting for the sandwiches to finish.
For some reason, today I wanted to resist a nostalgic urge towards my childhood sandwich. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great sandwich. But nostalgia can tint all our memories sepia and soft-focus-camera every moment, creating those gorgeous auras around inaccessible women in Hitchcock movies. I wanted to go somewhere else. Heat, change, alchemy.
I wish I could say that my first grilled cheese sandwich opened up a lifetime of cooking, but I didn’t begin cooking full meals for myself until years later. I wish I could say that this sandwich opened the doors to adventurous eating, but I’m still a picky eater. (Subject for a later post: is a foodie a once-picky eater all grown up?). I do know that I made a lot more grilled cheese sandwiches in our large deep cast-iron skillet, standing on a stool next to our avocado-green stove. (It was the late 70’s, after all.)
Instead, I think the sandwich represented one dish in a line of comfort foods for me. While comfort foods are important for everyone, I think comfort foods for picky eaters are especially important. Picky eaters get panicky when we scan the menus and chalkboards and don’t see any foods that we think we’ll like. Our itch is for the familiar: I know that, I’ve liked that before, and I’ll like it again. In our defense, it may be the fearful urge for easy pleasure in the face of too much uncertainty.
And so I come to the source of the uncertainty and the need for comfort.
I made many more grilled cheese sandwiches during what my sister and I call “the “scrounge for yourself years”: the years right after my dad died. I remember meals out at Sizzlers, buffet houses, and Mongolian barbecues; frozen dinners (some company made an amazing, if incredibly fattening chicken fettucine Alfredo); thinly sliced frozen Philly cheesesteaks called Steak-Umm. I’m not telling you this in order to blame my mother for these memories: she was a single mother supporting two young daughters, and she’d just lost the love of her life. My dad had taught her how to cook many of the dishes she brought to our dinner table.
In response to my dad’s death, my younger sister moved towards adventurous eating: trying whatever was offered to her, wherever it was offered to her, perhaps in order to reach out towards life more. She’s a visual artist and a sculptor now, so maybe trying new foods even helped develop her senses of taste and touch. Part of my response was to become an even pickier eater: to move towards comfort food for its predictability and familiarity in a world that, for a long while, felt like it had lost both. And when I finally realized that “scrounging for yourself” could mean “cooking,” I came to the kitchen with so much more energy.
I’ve wondered how to explain more about how the loss of my dad has defined my life, especially at a relatively early age, 10 years old. I know that it’s one of those statements that will take a long time to unpack. But for now, there are sandwiches.
P.S. If you’re on Twitter, you can search for other bloggers’ posts by using the hash tag firstthingicooked. Sometime this (Monday) evening, you can also check out Shauna’s roundup of the posts here.