Food for ThoughtOct/Nov 2013 Issue

Get Cooking!

You, too, can overcome kitchen illiteracy and, as our contributor says, "take control of what you eat."

The other day, I was reading an article when one sentence jumped out at me: Americans don't even know that they don't know how to cook. The statements was uncomfortably on target.   

In my 20s, I felt that I was competent in the kitchen. After all, I knew how to read a recipe. I now look back on those days with embarrassment. I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

At the time, I was dining out at restaurants but trying to limit that to a few times a week in an attempt to save money. The rest of my meals I made at home, relying primarily on convenience foods and prepared items from the grocery store.

This changed when I found out I have a severe food intolerance to plant-based and hydrogenated cooking oils. No one with an allergy to this type of ubiquitous ingredient will be surprised to learn how many products and foods contain oils. I, however, was shocked at how difficult it was to eat out and find prepared products that did not make me sick.

I started researching the restaurants where I wanted to dine and took lots of time to educate the wait staff about my intolerance. But it wasn’t easy to eat out. Even the steam wand at my local coffee shop came in contact with oil-laced soy milk and that little trace was enough to make me severely ill.

After a year, I realized that all my exposures to oils (and there were more than I like to admit) were when other people prepared my food. When I cooked from scratch at home, I was fine.

Gradually, I began using my kitchen, making most of what I ate. I tried preparing all kinds of food from scratch that I’d never made before, right down to the breadcrumbs I used in meatballs. Some things turned out better than I expected. But other meals were downright awful and I was left with stacks of dirty dishes that made me want to cry. Still, every day that I wasn’t sick felt like a triumph.

Now I can look back and laugh at my mistakes. From hindsight, it was all part of my learning curve. Recipes flopped because I was a kitchen novice. Mountains of dirty pots and pans happened because I didn’t clean up as I went. Running out of ingredients happened because I never planned. Time and practice were all I really needed.

I don’t fall into these pitfalls very often anymore. Best of all, I’m now one of those people who can open the fridge and make a meal out of whatever I have lying around. Most of my dishes turn out the way I want—some turn out even better.

In a way, I’m grateful that I was forced to work so hard at it. I’ve found something I really love to do. And what makes it even nicer is that I’m not playing Russian roulette with my health. My food is safe.

For those who are learning to deal with allergies or food intolerances, here’s my (hard-won) advice: Take control of what you eat by learning to cook. It’s the best thing I ever did for myself.

Celina Thomas ( lives and writes in Pullman, Washington.

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