Two of my best friends and I came up from Claremont McKenna College to go to graduate school at Stanford: Jeff Nelson in engineering, Mark Stott in journalism and me at the business school. Jeff found us a sweet three-bedroom home on Waverley Street in downtown Palo Alto. And there we were, three 22-year-olds, all set for a great experience living independently for the first time, except that we had no idea how to feed ourselves.
Since I had gone to Andover prior to Claremont, I’d been running a tray down a food line for a good part of my life, taking the slop that was given, most of it rarely rising to the level of edibility. Perhaps that is why food meant little to me; maybe after all those years of mediocrity and endless peanut butter sandwiches and little boxes of stolen cereal, I just lost interest.
After my first couple of weeks on Waverley living off of Trix and Captain Crunch, I discovered the food that would become my staple: Top Ramen. Back then, you could get 10 for a dollar at Safeway. It hasn’t gone up in price too much since then and the taste hasn’t changed either. The boys and I agreed that one night of the week we would take turns making a real meal for the three of us, and that we would sit down and eat together in proper fashion.
Now sometimes, the definition of that “real meal” got a bit iffy and the person cooking that night might be called out. Inevitably, the one called out would be me for making something like plain spaghetti while putting two types of bottled Ragu sauce on the table. But Mark and Jeff would make excellent meals, proud of their work, and we ate well on their nights. Of course, just being 22, at Stanford and on our own was really all we needed to feel great about the world, good food or not.
Once a week or so we might order a pizza or go downtown to grab some food, but most of the nights, I lived on Top Ramen or cold cereal. There were days when I had cereal and milk for all three meals, and that was just fine with me. Since I have a strong aversion to cooking, boiling the water for Top Ramen and stirring in the packet of flavoring was at my limit.
Fortunately for me, after Stanford I moved in with the woman who would become my wife, and she loved to cook, so for many years I was off the hook. I ate well. But after the kids grew up and she dove into a demanding career, it was once again my job to make sure that I ate enough calories every day.
So I’m back to my Stanford days, trying to figure out how to feed myself, still detesting the idea of doing more in a kitchen than boiling water. I have tried a few items to cook and not only do I find the process endlessly unappealing and torturous, I’m bad at it. I guess that would be the expected result of doing something you detest. Ironically, all four of my children love to cook, proving that this must not be a gene-related matter.
My goal in feeding myself is to get something palatable in a bowl in the shortest amount of time. And thus the reemergence of the ever-delicious Top Ramen. I buy it by the caseload and have it three or four nights a week. I know, I know. Way too much sodium. But two minutes of boiling the water and two minutes of cooking, and, voila! Dinner.
I used to make salads several nights each week and ate the same salad for ten years, but finally my tolerance for it plummeted. I have found a rather painless new way to eat decently. Trader Joe’s has these wonderful bags of cut-up vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts (all of which I love). I put a bag of these into the microwave with a frozen TV dinner like Fettuccini Alfredo (amazingly, always on sale for something like “5 for $10”), and five minutes later I pull them out, mix them into a bowl and I’ve got a somewhat edible dinner.
I realize that I’m not an evolved food person. I like routine and consistency far too much. Change is an anathema to me, and I hate leaving my comfort zone. I know that I’m missing out on a lot of great food and accepting a certain melancholy mediocrity because of these traits, but if you have them, you understand how hard it is to escape them.
So as I settle in with my ten-thousandth bowl of steaming Top Ramen, the TV tuned to Jeopardy, I sit savoring the delicious flavor and the soft noodles, happy in the sameness that gives me comfort and fills my stomach. And keeps me out of the kitchen.