I’ve gone from being the young fresh grad, up and coming, to the experienced, mentor. I’m not guru or sage. I’ll probably be the first to tell you there are a lot of things I don’t know and there are a lot of things I need to learn.
When I mix with colleagues who are on the ground, very likely, they are about 10 years younger than me. I am in a somewhat unique situation. I get to mix with the ‘younger’ generation without them realising I’m actually not one of their generation. I look and dress younger than my more mature contemporary peers. Yeah, I get flack for being childish and refusing to grow up and acting my age. So what?
I like feeling young. Sometimes I think I remained mentally in stasis at 21. Then, I look at a 21-year-old today, I realised I’ve come further than I thought. Lest you think I hate growing old and afraid of increasing age, I am not. I like my age. I celebrate my 30th birthday with happiness. With a feeling of emancipation. From expectation, from pressure to comply. I loved it. And I like being one of the few that don’t greet their big three-zero with depression and desperation. I am adult and I am old now. I’m expected to be a little strange and incorrigible. Especially when I’m single and unavailable and unattached. (Yes, one can be all three, thank you very much.) I won’t say how old I actually am. Enough that I am no longer teen or tween.
But when I talked with my younger female friends, I found something disturbing. There are only 10 years or less between us. Yet, none of them know how to cook. And worse, they convinced themselves that they will be horrible cooks and should not even try. What is wrong with this? Why are the young women feeling such pessimism and discouragement in a simple and basic survival skill?
I know about women’s liberation and feminism and blah blah blah. I live part of that life style. I am independent and self-sufficient. I support myself financially and socially. I make decisions without a male or another female involved. But feminism and equality is not about throwing away all things female and womanly. It is not about trying to be a man. Nor is it about bashing the male species. Yes, I have days when I do all three (sometimes all at the same time). To me, it is about the freedom of choice. It is being able to choose a feminine long hair style or a short boy-cut. It is about being able to wear pants or dresses whenever and wherever I feel like it. And I think … perhaps there needs to be a men’s liberation too. Except they haven’t realised that yet. The patriarchy fantasy still has a strong hold over the male population. Anyway, I digress.
The reason these women don’t know how to cook is not about women’s liberation. These women are not fiery-eyed activists. They are just ordinary ladies, trying to build a life in the society and environment they inherited and grown up in. A generation that grew up on instant meals. Canned food. Store food. Hawker food. Just add water food. Pre-packaged food. Fast food. Food that arrives in ready to eat form.
Their ‘standards’ for food is what they buy from outside. Enhanced with artificial flavours, prettied up with colouring. Loaded with MSG, sugar, salt and fat. Served with too much carbohydrate, a meagre slice or two of vegetable (if they’re lucky) which is often put aside and thrown away as garnish, and some protein. They have all ready failed before they start. Nobody cooks like that at home. Commercial and industrial food is different from home-cooked food from real plants and animals. Have we become so accustomed to the unnecessary extras in our commercial daily meals that we no longer recognise the real aroma, taste and texture of real food?
I grew up with two working parents. But I was fortunate to have grandmothers who cook. And having a family that is large enough and poor enough, that eating out for every meal would have been impossible. Even then, the work environment of my parents’ time encourage family meals. Breakfast before school and work. Lunch time that is 1 hour and 45 minutes. Work place close enough to home that the parents could come home, have lunch with their family and even a short nap, before going back to office. Compare that to my current work environment. Commute to and from work is one-hour one way. Lunch time is only one-hour in length. There is no way for a working parent to have lunch with the family.
That is for weekdays. Weekends were special in my family. It was when my mother and occasionally my father cook. I remember waking up early at 6 or 7am to go to the wet market. There was a special wet-market shopping basket that we bring. All fresh and raw food were produced locally, wrapped in newspaper and jut. And in later times, pink raffia strings. The kids were not exempted from helping. We sliced, diced, pounded and peeled. For special occasions, we get to fan the charcoal stove with a folded newspaper and sweat through the sunny afternoon smelling banana leaf and grilled fish.
Sometimes, there were bad cooking days. When a recipe did not turn out as wonderful as it seems. But it was still edible. We just eat less and feed the rest to the dog. Sometimes, the disaster can still be remedied. A saucer of soya sauce dip if it was too bland. A squeeze of lime if it was not sour enough. A cup of boiling water or stock if it was too thick. If the meat was raw in the middle, it went back into the wok or oven or steamer.
I’ve been thinking. I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that did not discourage failures and mistakes. In fact, it was that ‘it’s not end of the world’ and ‘it can be fixed with a little of this and that’ that was the most valuable lesson I could take from my home. It did not have to be perfect (though I can tell you, in my mother’s kitchen, everything have to be close to perfect if not perfection itself). What was important was that I did not have the schema or expectation that every piece has to look like it came from the shelf of a supermarket to be good enough.
Without that exposure to mistakes and cooking disasters, any first time cook would be panicked and discouraged. Without exposure to what real home-cooked food look and taste like, any recipe and instruction they followed religiously would not turn out to look and taste like something that came out of a can or plastic wrap.
So, I am grateful to be born in the cusp of change. My generation has seen much changes in lifestyle and technology. Not all of it good. Not all of it bad. We have the best and worst of both worlds. Most of us use that experience to make choices based on our experience of living through that time of transition.
But I do pity those that did not. And I see a gap that is missing. I am not sure how to address this. But I am reaching one person at a time. Encouraging them to experiment, to do things for themselves. To dare to fail and try again. But then, when it comes to cooking, it really is hard to fail completely. It is just a matter of expectation and experience. Nothing is a failure if you can learn from it and you can eat it too.
And as a denizen of the modern world, I encourage the use of public information in the forms of library and internet to find and teach yourself what you want to know. There is so much more free and accessible knowledge today than in our parents’ time. Make full use of it.