“What is Cheesecake?”
I always remember asking myself this at 2 am while my sister slept on the other couch, irritated by the ambient glow of the TV.
The year was 2002, I was 9, and everything was wrapped in plastic as my family prepared to move out of the ever-present dread (and dust) of lower Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
(To be fair we moved a block down so I don’t know how much that helped).
Being a kid with only two channels for a good three weeks, it was either pretend to be an adult and watch old people talk about the most boring topics, or watch the Food Network, and I’m assuming for 70% of the population that’s an obvious choice between the two.
I remember just watching this slightly pudgy (no more than my own father) Italian gentleman with delicate hands by the name of Emeril Lagasse crack wise with the camera. I remember being fascinated by his white cooking jacket, his ability to seemingly hold a one sided conversation with me while cheffing up some of the most delectable concoctions I had ever seen. Stuff I had dreamed of and prayed could be on my own table.
Between Lagasse and the crazy, kind of ingenious guy on Good Eats who looked like Bill Nye’s erratic cousin who always had something going down at the crib, I slowly became opened my eyes to a whole new side of love and appreciation for cuisine.
I remember this specific instance of Lagasse creating this crazy cake made from cream cheese. Emeril used some of the wildest contraptions (and a little elbow grease) to craft this whipped, wholly perfect dessert he called Cheesecake.
I could only imagine what the thing tasted like – was it sharp? was it cold? Were there other cheeses in it? Looking back on it now, in my own childhood naïveté I had a world full of imagination to lose myself in – one of the traits I’m glad I never shed in my later years.
You may be asking what this all leads up to – don’t worry I’m getting there.
Flash forward a good 8 to 9 years in high school. I embody the millennial connotations of boredom, and drowning in arguably meaningless information. Just another nerd obsessed with culture and spending way too much time perfecting the art of avoidance with Call of Duty in my dark closet of a room.
To this day I can remember that moment when my mom barged into my room, irate with my seeming lack of a life on a cold, dark January afternoon and with her combination of Chinese and Puerto Rican parenting fury yelling at me repeatedly
“I’m no longer cooking for any of you unappreciative ingrates – from now on you’re on your own.”
Now my mom, like all moms, loved theatrics, this was the norm in my household – but with my mother, this was one of the things she stuck to vehemently for a while (today she cooks from time to time but not as often as before).
So there I was, 17, about to enter college, and entirely not giving any semblance of a shit (no matter what anybody says, a constant supply of study drugs will make you have no appetite whatsoever). It was only when I realized that I physically was losing weight that I thought, maybe I should do something about this.
All grand realizations come from within, and at this moment a combination of my ever-present laziness and lack of awareness made me realize that not only had I no knowledge of the art of cooking something so simple as rice, but I had completely lost my love for food that I had in my youth.
At that moment I couldn’t help but laugh at my own longing to be a chef when I was younger, placing my favorite recipes into a now long lost binder.
So I decided to do the next best thing, I started eating out. For a short, but definitely sweet two weeks I would go out every night by myself and scour the streets between Canal and Houston for anything open between 6 and 7 pm.
Anyone can tell you that age old adage about New York City, “You can eat at a different restaurant every night and still won’t eat at them all for years.”
Now what they don’t tell you is that even before you attempt this culinary crusade you better be coming correct with your paper.
Filling your stomach you furiously drill a hole in your wallet at the speed of a high-powered food processor on overdrive (side note: never try to modify your processor, trust me it never ends well).
So after two weeks of pretending to be independent, I looked at my savings that would have gone to video games dwindle to about $18 and came to the realization that this was a dumb idea.
Naturally, like any pre-collegian getting ready to experience wanton recklessness, I stocked up on the staple food of choice: Maruchan Cup of Noodle.
I remember completely misreading the simple instructions and completely demolishing that pitiful stringy brew in a now-burnt pot on my oven.
After sticking my fork into the bubbly brew, filled with a mixture of pride and disgust, I thought one thing.
“Wow this sucks.”
Flash forward two years to the period from when I was 19 to 21 and you’d find me sideways, lost in depression, malaise, and abject atrophy.
I had flunked out of college out of self-sabotage, I had no job, no purpose, and I was perfectly content to turn into the Japanese hikikomori’s I had read about.
It didn’t help that I was now nearly 30 pounds underweight (for someone who’s 6’3” at 140 pounds the wind could have swept me away) and hadn’t left my room in months.
The world was gray. Living off of oat bars and fruit every couple of days completely wrecked my immune system, I was forced to go to the doctor after malnutrition had caused me to be more prone to swine flu that the media was hyping up for a while.
My longtime doctor took a look at me for the first time in two years and couldn’t recognize me.
I must have looked like a shadow of my former self. I remember my doctor telling me that if I continued down this path, I wouldn’t fall into worse condition, I’d probably die.
That kinda hit me a little I won’t lie, and being confined to my small, rank prison of a room didn’t really help much. Without any of my vices to turn to all I had left was Youtube, and I don’t know what really compelled me but I started looking up that guy from Good Eats again.
It’s weird but when I get fixated on something, I got lost in every aspect of it. Alton Brown, the host, and creator of Good Eats had run the show for 14 seasons over 12 years on the Food Network and I had become obsessed with the half-cooking show, half-science fair, all-fun feel of the program.
Watching Brown transported me away from my own life and for the first time since leaving college, actually made me feel better about my world in general.
He was my brand of funny, weird, but still relatable, all while making the act of cooking approachable to someone who didn’t really understand it.
After nearly an 80 episode binge-watch over the course of three days, I emerged from my room for the first time in a while, meekly entered the kitchen when nobody was home and began making cookies.
The mess I created in my kitchen over such a simple recipe would send my mother into an outrage, and was completely dwarfed by the black, misshapen, and inedible char that laid in the center of the counter on a plate, but I couldn’t have been more proud.
For the first time in years, I had actually done something that made me happy, thinking back on to it now it really did change my mindset for the better.
I had been most happy at college in the kitchen with my Asian floormates making dinner and eating as a large family in the basement.
I figured that if it makes you happy why not continue? For a good month, I woke up at 6:30 am and made multi-plate dishes for my sister for breakfast, each dish increasing my understanding.
In the kitchen I found something that actually gave my life structure, I started eating again, working out, got a part time job, and generally became more positive about things.
Cooking for people and providing a good feeling to them was the kindling for reintroducing me back into the world. It’s not all sunshine and roses, but one seed can lead to a forest of good vibes.
I dream of the day when I can invite people over to my home and create amazing dishes in a beautiful kitchen that is my own, to watch the smiles and the obsession with good food and even better times.
I’m working towards that dream, the one that the kid inside me envisioned all those years ago.
Where better to ponder the future than around the table with a nice slab of lasagna in front of you?