Nadia prepares to cook dinner for the Casa San Salvador community.

Editor’s Note: DC Service Corps volunteer, Nadia Barnett, reflects on the growth she has experienced through cooking for the Casa San Salvador community.

I’ve known how to cook since middle school. I’m no José Andrés but I can make myself something to eat when I’m hungry. Still, since my family tends to cook a lot, especially around the holidays, I’ve never really felt the need to go beyond helping my mom make something.

However, living at Casa San Salvador has really opened my eyes to how much I enjoy cooking for others. I have even developed a signature ingredient with which to cook. My process for dinner selection usually goes down like this: I search online for vegetarian dishes with my signature ingredient, scroll through until I find something I’d like to eat (and the time estimate is less than an hour), get excited about what I’m making next week, write down the ingredients on our grocery meal list, and then forget what I’m making and refer back to my ingredients to find the recipe online again. Lastly-and this is the kicker–I pretend to follow the recipe until about halfway through, when I’ve either forgotten to check back in or my cooking just isn’t matching the online images. But here’s the thing: I’m still pretty good at cooking (not to toot my own horn too much). All of the meals I’ve made are meals I really enjoyed eating, despite not following the recipe exactly. (All except one, but I’m not a soup person anyway.)

Speaking of recipes brings back a memory from middle school, from my early days of cooking.  I remember my uncle would make these smoothies – usually chocolate and banana – from “scratch.” I loved going to the store with him to get all the ingredients and sitting at his kitchen island as he blended them all together. One time when I went to his house, I saw this large book of smoothie recipes. Now, it obviously wasn’t the first time I’d seen a recipe book, but something about it was so fascinating to me. I remember this, mainly because I had my own tiny, green recipe book that I spent a solid year or so trying to fill with different recipes from various family members. I’d like to say I just went on Google, but pestering my Grandma was my main strategy. Though I haven’t seen that green book in years, I certainly dedicated an absurd amount of time – nearly every summer – trying to shadow my Grandma in the kitchen to learn how she cooks, because the funny thing is, I don’t really know anyone in my family, or otherwise, who uses a recipe book when cooking. Cooking has always seemed to be a thing that they just knew how to do well.

And cooking, after all, is such a simple, fundamental part of life. However, the way people talk about having the ability “to cook” is quite absurd, as if cooking is an activity that can make or break someone as a respectable adult. It’s like a constant competition, a metric to see how competent an individual is. Not being able to cook, as a woman, used to be discussed like it should be its own confession. I recall dropping my sister off at college and her roommate telling me she only knew how to make food in a microwave. She told me this like an admission of guilt. After, I said something about a meal for which I was trying to find the best recipe.  Even considering all of that, I never thought much of my own cooking capabilities, probably because, until I joined DC Service Corps, I never really challenged myself when it came to cooking. I was comfortable playing sous-chef.

But there’s something about cooking for seven to twelve people that I just like, and though I’ve tried to transfer my new-found affinity for cooking to cooking for myself, it’s just not there. When it’s just me, I make either breakfast food or quesadillas–my specialty since middle school. So, it’s a nice little pick-me-up to anticipate my night in the kitchen, when I can cook dinner without really feeling the need to cling to the recipe. I’m still no José Andrés, but I have developed a fondness for cooking for my community. A pleasant surprise that I didn’t really see coming, given I do still very much enjoy playing sous-chef, especially for my Grandma.

In reflecting on all this, it dawned on me that for many years I had gotten something wrong, that I had absorbed some of the common fable which says that cooks are divided into two categories: one for people who are amazing chefs, and one for people who need to stick to the recipe to make something edible. Presently, I don’t truly fit into either of those categories. Instead, cooking is a mutual gift between me and my community: I provide them tasty meals and I get to explore my affection of cooking.

Reflection Question: What is a skill that you have surprisingly gained through experience?