In 1972, I was hungry. Very hungry. After all, I was a 14-year-old boy. I played sports and was constantly working out. I could eat every hour. My mother packed my lunch in a grocery bag.
I was into eating and sports, but there were other manly pursuits I wanted nothing to do with. For example, I had no interest in tools. I could build a sandwich but not a birdhouse. Or a beer-can lamp. Which is exactly what I would be doing in shop class, which all boys had to take in ninth grade at my junior high school.
Girls took home economics. Boys took shop. Girls learned to cook lasagna and bake chocolate cake. I would be learning to use a lathe. I preferred lasagna. So I did the sensible thing: I signed up for home economics.
The school counselor called me into her office to tell me that boys weren’t allowed to take home ec. I asked to see her boss, the vice principal. Same story. “Well,” I announced, “we have a problem because I’m not taking shop. These rules are discriminatory.” This was 1972; discrimination was everywhere you looked. If you weren’t protesting something, what were you doing? My parents wrote a letter expressing their support for my decision.
My mother was called to school. The problem, it turned out, was that shop and home ec were same-sex classes, and they were worried that a boy would be disruptive in an all-girls class. As much as I wanted to be in an all-girls class — I liked girls as much as lasagna — I saw an opening.
The next day I circulated a petition at school, demanding that the administration establish an all-boys home ec class for the undersigned: some two dozen hungry males whose parents were willing to let them out of shop to learn to cook.
The democratic process worked, the administration backed down, and within a few days, we boys began our experiment in domesticity. It’s true that we spent most of our time throwing hot, wet spaghetti at one another and eating so much raw muffin batter that our muffins came out stunted, but in spite of ourselves we witnessed magic: onions sweetened by fire and flour transformed by yeast.
So began my love affair with cooking. I was given the keys to the castle, the ability to satisfy my largest appetite. It was like the power some kids feel when they get a driver’s license. If I was hungry (and I was), I didn’t have to beg my mother to cook me something or settle for pretzels or chips. I could make spaghetti or meatloaf. I was the master of my domain.
In college, I might have been the only guy to ever use the dorm stove. I sold my meal tickets and cooked almost every night. I started with chili and burgers and soon graduated to making hummus and curried chicken. Along the way, I asked the cook at the local vegetarian restaurant for her blue cheese dressing recipe. It called for two cloves of garlic. I bought two bulbs. When I separated the sections, they were all different sizes. I concluded that if a recipe called for two of something, then those somethings must be pretty uniform in size. The bulbs were uniform, and so I proceeded to blend in about 45 cloves of garlic. Lesson learned.
By the time I was dating Rique, the woman who would become my wife, I knew my way around several cuisines and had a drawer full of spices. I invited her over for dinner and was in the process of roasting fragrant Indian seeds — cumin, coriander, fennel, black mustard — when she walked in. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and let her take a whiff. She was mine.
What started for me as an act of civil disobedience back in the ninth grade became a lifelong habit. I cook every day. I cook because I love to eat. And I want control. I don’t want someone else choosing the flavors and textures of my dinner. I cook; therefore, I am.
Michael Pollan, in his book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” suggests that cooking at home is the best way to combat the obesity epidemic. Most of us don’t make French fries at home, for example. And how often does a home cook reach for a jug of corn syrup, a common — and fattening — ingredient in so many processed foods?
Mr. Pollan also proposes that we spend more time in school teaching boys and girls to cook in home economics classes, which are rarely required courses anymore. I couldn’t agree more.
But in the end, health is just a byproduct of learning to cook. You could argue that cooking is the activity that most defines us as humans. Dolphins have a language; crows can create tools. But only humans can cook. By cooking, we transform the mundane into something sacred. And then we share it with others. Food is the most shareable currency we have. You probably don’t pass out money to your friends, but you can pass the paella. But first you have to know how to make it.