In late high school, I got super into watching Good Eats as it combined nerdy science, goofy theater school shenanigans, and cool-sounding food in a package I found utterly addictive, despite not having ever really done anything more than putting a can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls onto a pan and into the oven before. It was one of the programs I’d veg out to on long summer nights when there wasn’t a party or date going on. My poor gf (who’s somehow remained with me despite these clearly troubled early times) sometimes got roped into watching on the couch with me, hah.
This had a side effect of instilling in me a lot of semi-disconnected bits of moderately advanced cooking lore/science, with almost no practical skills at all (I couldn’t have even diced an onion at that stage). Mom wasn’t much of a cook, but knew how to make family favorites and didn’t ask for any help, and my paternal grandmother was a fabulous but fairly secretive cook, hah.
Around that time, as I was wrapping up HS/getting ready for college, I got super into Indian food thanks to my best friend, whose far more worldly and interesting family took me to try it while I was visiting them, as they’d recently returned from a long stay in India, traveling all around. I fell in love with it, but it turned out that in Podunkton, TN, options were few and far between. If I wanted to try anymore of it, I’d need to cook it myself. So we shlepped out to the next big town over, bought a bunch of ingredients we’d never tried before, and tried to make a basic curry, which turned out absolutely horribly. I’d been shooting for Vindaloo, but forgotten to get two or three spices for it, and searched through my TJ Maxx-acquired Indian cookbook for an alternate that used what I did have, settled on Goan Coconut Chicken, and then subbed in western-style sweetened shredded coconut for the recommended fresh. Oops.
Moving away to college put a pause on much of this, as my first two dorms didn’t have much in the way of cooking (I snuck a toaster oven into the latter, and once tried oven-toasting some “fried” cracker-crusted chicken to put between two Eggo waffles in the saddest attempt at recipe creation ever devised). Still, on vacations, I’d use our home kitchen, trying out Alton Brown and Indian recipes alike.
Senior year of college, I got an apartment and dropped my meal plan down to the minimum, so I had to learn quick. I spent the year slowly mastering a handful of recipes, mostly pulled out of How to Boil Water by the Food Network Kitchens, plus a couple gleaned from relatives on dad’s side who were parceling out my now-deceased mawmaw’s recipes like so much gold to the rest of us.
And, uh, lemme tell you. I made a fuckload of often hideous, occasionally gross food, and ate it, because I got X meals a week at the dorms, and X was not a large number, and I was poor as shiiiiiiiiit and couldn’t eat out much at Boston prices.
But by year’s end, I could produce red beans and rice from scratch without a written recipe, and that’s all that really mattered. Plus, I finally got around to making some Vindaloo. And some hilariously puffy “naan.” 2008 was a wild time :)
A few months after college, I landed my first real job and immediately moved back out with my girlfriend, who was at the time still one of the pickiest people imaginable, with wildly different tastes than my own. We didn’t have much money at all, but watching her subsist on a steady diet of Corn Pops, Kids Cuisine, and oven-blackened Oscar Meyers was pretty depressing, so I had to expand my repertoire to include things she’d like, that we could afford. That’s when I really started leaning heavily on the internet and especially Youtube to learn more from. Suddenly, a ton of that stuff Alton had taught me all those years back really started to click into place, and I began experimenting and developing a lot more.
A decade+ hence, there’s a rotating cycle of about a dozen major menus (Cajun, North Indian, South Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Venezuelan, Mexican, Mediterranean, Southern Comfort, British fry shop), each consisting of 5-10 common dishes, plus a few holiday/party specials (Family Xmas, friend’s fancy Thanksgiving, Puerto Rican Xmas/3 Kings Day), that I feel like I’ve more or less mastered, and every couple of months, I’ll try something new to keep it fresh and to challenge myself to grow and learn more.
I spend an enormous amount of time watching cooking Youtube – an hour or two a day, most days, and still occasionally pick up cookbooks to page through and absorb as I lay in bed or hustle in the kitchen. A lot of that is now inspiration: I’ll get an idea in my head, watch/read a ton of recipes/guides/history, and synthesize a take on it, then revise based on how it turned out/what I learned.