My year of cooking quick and dirty: How I lowered the bar and set myself free

It started with a pasta dish I didn't want to make with pasta, and a sandwich I wanted to fill with chocolate

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 28, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

A fallen white ceramic plate of spaghetti, with a fork beside it (Getty Images/Aleksandr Zubkov)
A fallen white ceramic plate of spaghetti, with a fork beside it (Getty Images/Aleksandr Zubkov)

It started with a pasta dish that I didn't want to make with pasta, and a sandwich that I wanted to fill with chocolate. It's one of my favorite beginnings, ever.

Cooking and baking have, for much of my adult life, been my refuge and my creative outlet. I am a person who falls asleep composing meals in her head, who has a Pinterest AND a 3-ring binder of cross-referenced food favorites and inspiration. I'm also a stressed, overextended and incredibly anxious individual whose to-do list will explode in my face if I put one more thing on it.

In 2020, I wrote a few stories for Salon about the things I was slapping together in my kitchen to make it through — an aptly named Depression cake, 3-ingredient peanut butter cookies, caramelized onions lazily done in the slow cooker. I wrote about my frustration and exhilaration as the daily demands of family meal preparation escalated over the pandemic, the ways in which cooking had transformed for me into something simultaneously therapeutic and punishing. It connected with readers like few things I've ever done in my career, and it motivated us at Salon to launch a weekly column devoted to the kind of cooking so many of us are doing now — the quick and dirty kind.

I was out for breakfast recently with a friend who's a professional chef. We talked excitedly and obsessively about the dishes we've been making, the cookbooks we love. And although his level of training and skill is stratospherically above mine, he said something that resonated with me as the entire motivation for this column. "Everybody," he said, "should know how to cook a meal."

In much the same way that I am uncoordinated and bad at math but exercise and keep a budget anyway, I too absolutely believe that everybody should know how to cook a meal. And everybody can. Life is not a competition and Gordon Ramsay isn't going to smush our faces if the omelette doesn't turn out perfectly. We don't have to be master chefs, and with every other obligation in our lives, who would have the time to become anyway? But we can nourish ourselves, and feed our loved ones, in a way that satisfies the stomach and the soul. In our darkest times, it's what sustains us.

Writing about food every single week of this year challenged me and changed me. It has made me accountable — accountable for pushing outside of my comfort zone and trying new things, accountable for making sure the things I eat are good enough to tell others about. It has made me really consider the way my food looks, not for the sake of pointless Instagram perfection, but as a humble means of making a little bit of beauty in an often ugly time. It has also made me accept — nay, embrace — my apparently permanent lowered expectations regarding my own cooking. Good enough is good enough, and I'm all in.

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Writing about food has enabled to have meaningful conversations with people I admire about the ways in which they get it done. It will go down in my life's highlight reel that I talked to Nigella Lawson about the simple pleasures of brown food, with Frances Lappé about sustainability, and Eric Ripert about spaghetti pomodoro. Sharing our insights and experiences always connects us, so deeply. It connects us with the entire human family, through all of history, all of us together just standing over our pots and stirring their contents.

And, because everybody eats and everybody has opinions about it, that conversation also provokes strong reactions. The two most controversial subjects I have ever written about, the ones that have generated the most scathing hate mail, are, hands down, abortion and pasta. I already knew that Roe v. Wade was controversial, now I also know that if there is any kind of noodle involved in the story, just brace for impact. Pro tip: If you use words like "cacio e pepe" or "carbonara," even in conjunction with "an adaptation of," in a column called "Quick & Dirty," buckle on up.

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Along with getting a hamster and finally seeing "Company" on Broadway, writing about cooking and baking — the kind of real world, improvisational, sometimes wonderful and sometimes flustered and resentful cooking and baking that so many of us are trying to do here — has been one of true great joys of a brutal year. It's enabled me to look at cooking through the eyes of the best cookbook writers in the world. I would never in a bajillion years have had Nadiya Hussain's lightbulb insight that you can make the best bread pudding in the world with melted ice cream. I would never have discovered Hetty McKinnon's sheet pan chow mein, and now I can't live without it. I likely never would have devised the original recipes that I came up with, and now I'm like, yeah, candy granola, this can be my legacy. I'm definitely still a pasta desecrating monster, but I am also a more confident, knowledgable home cook, and I love that.

I know that getting food on the table can be difficult, and boring, and just a massive pain in the butt at the end of a day full of nothing but pain in the butt. It is for me too. It's work, yes, but it doesn't have to be that hard. You don't have to get a stack of new cookbooks (although there are a hell of a lot of great ones) or try a new recipe every week. You can, however, experiment more. You can try something you've never cooked before, or cook if you've never cooked before. It's a pretty low stakes project, at a moment when just going to the supermarket feels like a very high stakes one. And it's worth it, it really, really is. Doing things with your hands is legitimately good for your brain, it makes other people happy, and at the end you sometimes actually have something to show for your all hard work. Sometimes it's even pie.

Quick & Dirty recipes to try: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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