When I decided to dorm for college and live on my own over two years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. For some reason, I naïvely didn’t even acknowledge the idea of needing to learn to cook.

Growing up, I never cooked for myself. I think the closest I ever came to cooking was putting a frozen pizza in the oven and determining when it was ready, or perhaps assembling a PB&J. Sure, my mother cooked for me a couple of times a week, but for much of my upbringing, my food came from pizzerias and fast-food stops on the way home from karate class, or microwaving frozen stuff from the supermarket. My first year of college took me on the rocky road to culinary independence, which transformed me into being passionate about cooking, food, and health and ultimately led me on a path to veganism.

vegetable, tomato, pepper
Christina Valente

In my first month of college, I spent a lot of money buying food, either at the school cafeteria or halal carts or elsewhere. That became costly, so I started to cook more - not the cook-from-scratch kind of cooking, though. It was more like the cook-the-pre-assembled-stuff-from-the-grocery-store cooking. I’m talking canned foods, microwavable frozen vegetables, and pre-cooked and sliced chicken strips. I soon realized that even this stuff was costly (and not even tasty), so I began to buy cheaper groceries that I actually had to cook. This is where things got a little messy - I didn’t know what the heck I was doing!

Since I had no idea how to cook and I somewhat just threw myself into it, I burned a lot of things, damaged a lot of pots and pans, and ate some really bland and boring food. For some reason, I didn’t look up cooking tutorials or recipes or anything like that. I guess I hadn’t caught on to the magical Internet world of endless recipes and cooking videos yet. Instead, I just learned through trial-and-error. I didn’t cook a wide variety of foods, just things that I thought I couldn’t mess up (like pasta) or that would still taste okay to me if I messed up.

Over time, I slowly got comfortable with cooking chicken and potatoes, so I ended up cooking that for dinner most nights because I was too afraid, too tired, and too busy to cook new things. I somehow became content with that plain chicken and those nearly burnt potatoes that kept sticking to the pan.

chicken, potato, rosemary, chips
Christina Valente

Honestly, though: my food sucked.

After a few months, I naturally got really sick of chicken and potatoes and yearned to move on to better things. I also found myself with more free time on my hands after the fall semester ended, so I started branching out and experimenting with new foods.

I began to look online for recipes and finally discovered websites like foodnetwork, allrecipes, yummly, and the endless recipe pins on pinterest. It was at this point that I went full-force into cooking. I stocked up on a bunch of seasonings and condiments - because every cook knows you can’t make any recipe without garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cumin, basil, thyme, bay leaves, dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, or olive oil.

Thankfully my mom had most of this stuff back home, so I simply brought it all from home to my dorm. By the end of my freshmen year, I was following new recipes every day and cooking up some delicious meals.

rice, chicken, risotto
Christina Valente

I learned useful cooking techniques from watching dozens of recipe videos and reading the ubiquitous written recipe articles on the Internet. I explored many different cuisines and types of cooking. Over time I became drawn to vegan recipes, which were always so colorful and delicious. After educating myself more on veganism, I actually decided to go vegan and have been so ever since.

pepper, vegetable, onion, meat
Christina Valente

I am now a junior and I no longer dorm. Though I have moved back home with my parents, I still cook for myself. Living in the dorms taught me the valuable skill of culinary independence, which I now use at home. I am at a point in my cooking experience in which I rarely follow recipes anymore; I have my own personalized set of recipes in my head, but most of the time I just ad lib it.

I didn’t get here overnight, though. I think the major key in my learning to cook was that I cooked every single day and learned new things every day through my own trial-and-error. Most importantly, I eat good food now, and I make it all myself. Never will I go back to the dark ages of plain chicken and burnt potatoes.