Soft Skills are Skills Too

Having read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists recently, I continue to be struck by her comment (it was amazing, by the way; the whole book is amazing) that more people should have the knowledge to cook in order to provide themselves with sustenance. Cooking has long been relegated to the realm of femininity (unless it’s monetized), which is bizarre as cooking is a learned behavior that offers no advantage or enhancement of either gender. Yet somehow, when it comes to college students, the expectation is that they are incapable of cooking their own meals. 

It’s fair to note that colleges are profiting on the fact that college students do not know, or simply prefer not to cook. That’s what (mandatory) food plans are for; that’s what they do. When I was in undergrad, I avoided eating at the cafeteria because the food was bland and unappealing (reminder: I love airline food) or the lines were too long, and at the end of the year I had a couple hundred dollars on my account that were wasted—that did not roll over into the next year—because whether or not I ate the food, I was charged for it. And, there is a safety aspect to consider in allowing college freshmen to cook: all of those teenagers packed into dorms, staying up all hours into the night studying (studying—don’t tell me otherwise, la la la, I don’t want to hear it). Does the fire department really want them to make eggplant parmesan at 3 in the morning? Unlikely. I had a roommate in undergrad who did manage to set off the fire alarm broiling a pop tart while he slept. He apparently tried to blame one of us, but I was out of town on a Model United Nations trip and our third roommate was out of town at a Rowing competition. It’s close quarters, and a very real possibility that someone could all but burn the building down, but shouldn’t the expectation be that as newly minted adults, they wouldn’t? Because they’d by then learned how to cook responsibly? Imagine that world.

College students are old enough to vote, to sign up to fight for their country, are deemed mature enough (well, sometimes just old enough) to live away from parental supervision; why is it we don’t expect that they can cook for themselves? Provide sustenance for themselves?

I think I’m particularly sensitive to the topic. My dad was always concerned that I’d grow up without knowing how to cook for myself. Both of my parents, and my grandparents who were present were all busy working, and I got on with TV dinners, breaking into my mom’s Slimfast supply (I thought they tasted like milkshakes—I’m still a little mortified that they were recalled), and having breakfast for dinner, which drove my mother nuts. I did not understand the hullabaloo on that one; the difference between 10pm and 1am is marginal, and largely emotional. My grandmothers made meals of their time and locations—pork chops, buttered carrots, sweetened apple sauce for one, and fish soup for the other. (Which always made me indignant—to make fish swim after death just seemed insulting to the fish. But every time she would make it, I would be reminded of the Polish proverb that a fish should swim three times: in water, in butter, and in wine.) I really didn’t enter college, or even my twenties, with an abundance of meals I could make on demand.

I could clean an oven like a pro, though. I still remember the day, having moving off campus, a roommate came home and found that I had lifted the top of the oven up like a hood and was wiping away grease underneath the burners. He was in awe that such a thing was possible.

And what with fast food, both healthy and not, I really didn’t bother learning how to cook anything spectacular until I entered the dating scene. The first time a guy invited me over for dinner, I was fairly confident it was a ploy to murder me and do something eyebrow-raise-worthy to my corpse. (The Perfect Host had just came out.) But instead he served the most delicious chicken, we had great conversation, and that was that. A couple more events like these solidified the fact that if I ever wanted to invite a guy over, I couldn’t just serve him tuna mayonnaise over rice, or black pepper and olive sauceless spaghetti. (I got tired of cleaning sauce off of everything.) So around 24, 25, I finally started to learn how to cook.

And I still have “incidences” to this day—having only learned how to use a zester two years ago, I zested my finger last Thanksgiving, bleeding all over the lemon I was torturing—but I have a better repertoire now than I did even a year ago, let alone five or seven. Learning how to cook strikes me as a vital life skill that really isn’t taught in schools; it’s a life skill, and I’m curious when people who go to college, who go for their masters, who go for a doctorate, are expected to learn it, and better yet, when do they get the chance to practice and perfect it.