Column: Cooking has taught me to stay determined, not let little things bother me, and keep the number to the fire department handy, just in case.


A shot of kitchen appliances. Photo by Clare Heller.

Clare Heller
Oxford Stories

Cooking, in theory, does not seem overly complicated. You get the ingredients, a few spices, throw them all together in the oven, and voila, you have a delicious meal in no time. Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that cooking is not as easy as it looks, and the number of times the smoke alarm has gone off in my apartment can attest to that.

Moving into a beautiful, fully-furnished apartment this year filled me with a determination that I would become a master chef. I had big plans that involved making amazing dishes throughout the week, trying new recipes, and finding healthy and delicious options for me and my roommates. Little did I know that watching my dad cook while I was growing up was certainly not the same thing as actually knowing how to cook.

I admit, I had been spoiled with parents who fixed delicious meals for me my siblings, so I was used to things like grilled shrimp, sautéed asparagus, and roasted potatoes on a consistent basis. Dad had given me a crash course in basic cooking before I left, so naturally, I thought I had it down, no problem.

The first night in the apartment was the beginning of my uphill climb. I went to boil the water in my tea kettle, something that I had done countless times before without complication, but the new electric stove had other plans. The smell should have been my first indicator. It was a chemical tang that definitely should not have been there, but I failed to notice a problem until the burner itself started smoking, filling my apartment and, of course, setting off the smoke alarm.

After the apartment had been sufficiently aired-out, I realized my dreams of becoming the next Paula Deen were going to take more work than I had anticipated. Back to the drawing board I went, or at least, back to Walmart to find something that I could make without alerting the fire department.


Spices and seasonings for chicken tacos. Photo by Clare Heller.

Starting off simple, I found a bag of frozen vegetable stir fry and pre-cooked chicken. I went home and set about preparing dinner under the watchful eyes of my roommates. Vegetables thawing in the sauté pan and chicken defrosting on the burner next to it, I was moving around the kitchen like a seasoned professional. When dinner was finally done and plated, you could hear an audible sigh of relief. No burnt vegetables, no rubbery chicken, and most importantly, no wail of the smoke detector.

My little success gave me all the confidence I needed to continue my cooking endeavors. I moved on to slightly more complicated pre-cooked dinners like pan-fried dumplings and chicken and broccoli alfredo. Every week I tried something new, and based on the constructive criticism and suggestions from my highly qualified taste-testers, my roommates, I slowly worked my way up to the next big step in my cooking career: a meal made from scratch.

On a particularly sunny morning, I made my way to the grocery store with a list that seemed a mile long, filled with different seasonings and ingredients I would need for the dinner I planned for that night. Chicken tacos are a crowd-pleaser, and I was ready to test my newly acquired skills on a recipe that I spent hours scrolling the internet to find. When the time came for dinner prep to begin, I rolled up my sleeves, put my hair in a bun, and set to work.

Within the first 20 minutes, we heard the familiar shriek of the smoke alarm. I forgot about the oil I had left in the pan to heat up, and sure enough, it started smoking up the kitchen. Mildly embarrassed and utterly annoyed, I opened up the windows, turned on the fan, and went about preparing the meal as if nothing had happened. I was determined to make something edible, despite any setbacks I encountered.

Almost an hour and a half after I started, I was finally ready to present my first meal made completely from scratch. Although the counter-top was covered in a variety of spices, and the sink had a pile of dirty pots, pans, and utensils a mile high, I was proud of the little Mexican feast I had put together. I placed my chicken alongside my taco bar setup, complete with cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and salsa, and swelled with pride for my little accomplishment.


Roasted cinnamon sweet potatoes. Photo by Clare Heller.

The beginning of my cooking journey was a serious learning curve. Working in the kitchen taught me a valuable life lesson: even if something does not work out the first try, or even the second, keep your head up and keep trying. Eventually, you will overcome that challenge. Now, I invite our friends from all over the apartment complex to come and enjoy our “family dinners,” and it is on those nights where the food brings everyone together, that we all laugh and smile and forget about the stress of everyday life.

I still make mistakes. Just last night I nearly set a sweet potato on fire when I dropped it off the pan onto the bottom of the oven, which was heated to a toasty 400 degrees. But, I know that, despite these small bumps in the road, I can do whatever I set my mind to, including baking a gluten free chocolate cake, which is my next mission. Cooking has taught me to stay determined and to not let the little things bother me, and most importantly, keep the number to the fire department handy, just in case.

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