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Bonding Through Cooking
Aurora Breville
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When I entered foster care at age 13, I didn’t know how to cook. I truly didn’t know my way around the kitchen.

My first foster home was cool because it was just girls living there. That meant not waking up to a raised toilet seat. It also meant being understood. I couldn’t picture myself talking to a couple of guys about how my heart got broken on a date, while making a casserole with an apron on.

So, at the same time I got my first taste of cooking, I was able to share my thoughts and feelings and bond with girls my age.

What Is That?

I remember the day they found out that I couldn’t cook. I walked into the kitchen and saw one of the girls making something that wasn’t familiar to me: ramen noodles. I stared into the pan, trying hard to see past the foam, and asked in disgust, “What is that?”

The girl gave me a look that said, Are you for real? Then she told me what it was.

Then I asked her, “How do you make that?”

At first she couldn’t believe that I asked her how to make ramen noodles. But after a few minutes of stirring the flavor packet into the pan, she told me gruffly, “Get yourself a pan and fill it with water.”

Then she said, “Wait for the water to boil and add the noodles. Let it boil for three more minutes and take it off the stove. Are you gonna eat it with the broth?”

I said, “No.”

“Then you’re gonna need the colander.”

“The what?” I asked, perplexed.

“The colander, the strainer, the metal thing with the thousand holes and a handle. You have to use that to drain your noodles.” And with that she stalked out of the kitchen with her lunch.

The other girls came strolling into the kitchen soon after she left. One by one they started throwing questions at me.

“Do you know how to make fried chicken?’

“Do you know how to make eggs?”

“Do you know how to clean meat?”

“Do you know how long to fry bacon?”

As they fired these and other questions at me, I shook my head no. The questions went on and on, and my answer never changed. I honestly expected them to make fun of me and say all sorts of things behind my back, because I was the new girl who didn’t know one thing about cooking.

Growling Stomach

That was not the case, however, and I’m very glad that I was honest with them. I could’ve lied about being able to cook, but then I would’ve made a major mistake like burning the house down, and that wouldn’t have been cool.

My next cooking lesson came after the girls heard our foster mother complaining that I was walking around the house grumbling about a growling stomach. I had the nerve to take it a step further and ask my foster mother, “When are you going to cook dinner?”

My foster mother took one look at me and said, “I don’t cook for no grown women. I’ll cook once in a while, when I feel like it, but otherwise, you go in there and fix yourself something to eat. And close the door on your way out.”

I went into the kitchen feeling dejected and hungrier than ever. I looked through all the cabinets and in the refrigerator. Everything that I saw had to be prepared and cooked in some way, shape, or form. I was ready to give up and go to bed hungry for the first night in my life when “the Cooking Squad” came on the scene.

Cook for Myself?

“Whatcha doing, Li’l Bit?” Diane asked.

“Just lookin’ for somethin’ to eat,” I said, “that’s all.”

“You can’t be looking for something to eat, chile. You don’t have pots and pans out, number one. And number two, you didn’t put anything on the counters ready for cooking.”

“So what do you want to eat, girl?” Lena asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I replied, “I’m still trying to decide.”

“Why don’t you make some macaroni ’n’ cheese to go with that chicken left over from yesterday?” Diane suggested.

“Yeah! And you can add some mixed vegetables on the side, you know, to get the vegetable portion out of the way,” Kayla offered.

My mind was reeling at this point. I was hungry, and I was going to cook for myself? For real? Get out of here!

I was trying to continue my strict ritual of waiting patiently for someone else to cook for me, something I’d done for 13 years running. Why break such a delightful cycle, I thought. There’s nothing wrong with being pampered for one more year. The idea of cooking for myself was revolting. I tried my hardest to get one of the girls to follow through with the food suggestions they made.

First Lesson

They made me feel like I should’ve been arrested for asking someone else to cook for me at my age, and concluded by saying something that made me (and my stomach) mad: “I guess you’re not all that hungry then.”

“Fine!” I snapped. “Then show me how to cook the stupid thing, doggonit!”

image by Stephanie Montanez

Laughing, they told me to get out all the ingredients I needed to make my first dinner: a bowl of leftover chicken, a cup of milk, a pat of butter, the box of macaroni ’n’ cheese, and the frozen pack of mixed vegetables.

I don’t have to tell you how bad my stomach was growling, but I will. I felt like my stomach was trying to scrape my back! It was hard to concentrate, but I tried following their instructions as much as I could.

I cooked the macaroni first and left it on the stove so that it could stay toasty and warm. I warmed up the chicken in the microwave for three minutes. I did the mixed vegetables last, since they take the least amount of time to cook.

My next cooking lesson involved something that I swore I would never do in my life: cleaning meat. These three girls were determined to change my mind about that and fast!

I woke up one morning to have a bowl of cereal when Diane, the oldest, came into the kitchen. I made a move to leave the kitchen with my bowl when she yelled, “Freeze!”

Cleaning Chicken

Of course you know I sat right down and waited for her to bark.

“I gotta teach you how to clean chicken.”

Not a “Good morning, did you sleep okay?” Not even a “What’s up?” She was determined to get right down to business and didn’t care what I thought.

As if on cue, Lena and Kayla came into the kitchen pretending to be sleepy-eyed.

“What are you gonna do with the chicken, Diane?” Kayla asked.

“Nothing. She’s gonna clean the chicken for dinner tonight.”

Kayla looked at me and looked at Lena and just went to the refrigerator for the milk to go with her cereal. Lena was nice about the whole thing. She came over to where I was sitting and asked, “Have you ever cleaned chicken before?” I shook my head no because my mouth was full of Frosted Flakes.

“It’s not hard,” she continued. “All you need is a knife and some hot water. Show her, Diane.”

“Come over here.”

I walked over to the scene of the crime. When I got to the kitchen sink, Diane handed me the knife.

“Pick up the wing and take off the skin with the knife.”

I looked at her, looked at the wing, and started to the pull the skin away. When I was finished, I put the wing in the waiting bowl and stared at Diane.

Licking Fingers

“Do the rest of them,” she commanded and walked to the refrigerator.

As I was finishing the rest of the chicken parts, she handed me the lemon.

“Use the lemon to season the meat after you wash it off in hot water. DO NOT use the dishwashing liquid, the hot water’s enough.”

Believe me, I was not dumb enough to use the dishwashing liquid to wash meat. I knew I didn’t want to taste any soap on my chicken. Personally, I think she was just saying that to be mean. I thought that everything I was doing was wrong, but when everyone sat down to fried chicken that evening, they were licking their fingers and asking for more. I thought that I was in the clear after that night. Wrong!

My next lesson was to make breakfast for the whole house on cleaning day (Saturday). Diane came into my room at 8:00 in the morning.

“Wake up, Sleepyhead,” she said, shaking me. “Come with me to the kitchen. I got something else to teach you.”

Girlfriend Talk

I gotta tell you that at this point the barking stopped. Diane started talking to me just like any other person. I guess she started having respect for me since I put a hurtin’ on that chicken the last time I cooked.

The lessons weren’t all bad, either. During the time when I was cleaning the meat, Diane asked all types of questions, like where I lived, what kind of music I liked, and if I went to church. I found out that Diane didn’t live too far from me before she came into foster care. We also liked the same kind of music: everything except country and heavy metal.

This time when Diane took me to the kitchen, Lena and Kayla didn’t follow, which was another shock. I guess they figured they wouldn’t get any more laughs out of me since I knew (somewhat) what I was doing.

Diane got all the things that I needed to start my first big breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, bread, butter, milk, orange juice, and the box of pancake mix.

“Get the big frying pan out of the bottom cabinet.”

While I was getting that, she was telling me about the latest episode between her and her boyfriend. While she talked and laughed at all the things that her boyfriend said and did, I prepared the batter and the pan for my pancakes. After the batter was finished, I fried up all the bacon and toasted the bread last, just like she asked.

When I was finished, I felt proud. My taste buds and stomach were pretty happy with what I did, too. It made my heart feel good to see Kayla, the heartiest eater of the house, ask me, “Can you show me how you made your pancakes so golden brown? Mine always come out looking funny and sick!”

When I was alone that evening and every other evening after that, I couldn’t help but puff up with pride. It actually felt good knowing that there were dishes out there that were no longer a total mystery to me. I felt a little more like an adult because I didn’t have to depend on anyone. I always thought that cooking for myself would be such a chore because of my huge appetite, but it really wasn’t!

A Better Me

I felt wonderful whenever it was time to cook because it meant bonding with other girls my age. It was another adventure for me that held many ups and downs, both in and out of the kitchen. When I’m cooking, I sometimes feel like I’m working on something that will help to make a bigger and better me.

I’ve definitely come a long way from learning how to make macaroni ’n’ cheese and I’m no longer queasy inside about cleaning meat. And making friends has become second nature to me because, just like cooking, it’s no longer a crazy idea.

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