Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oh, Brother

“Guess what? I want to go to culinary school. I’m going to be a chef,” my brother announced yesterday as he proudly stirred a pan of ground chuck, dehydrated potatoes and powered “spices.”

I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on him. It was his first attempt at cooking something that wasn’t nuke-able. And he did attempt to dress up the Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff with some Italian seasoning and salt and pepper.

For the past year and a half, Steven has talked about nothing but going into the military, being a soldier and a chaplain. Although I could never really picture him as a soldier or a chaplain, and although I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of him enlisting in the military and (probably) being carted off to war, I thought maybe the military would teach him some self-discipline—or some discipline in any form—and I tried to be supportive and not remind him that he’s overweight and has a major problem respecting authority—both qualities upon which the Army tends to frown.

But he told me last night, as he attempted to prevent his culinary masterpiece from scorching, that since the country elected Barack Obama the next president of the United States, he no longer had any desire to enter the military and would instead attend Tulsa Tech as a culinary student. He was inspired, he said, in part, by me. The last time I was at my parents’ house, I left the TV on the Food Network and Steven, unable to locate the remote, watched Iron Chef America for hours and decided he wants to be the next Bobby Flay.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to encourage Brother’s new ambition. It’s a realistic one, for once (unlike the month he decided he wanted to be a professional wrestler). Everything he needs to know in order to succeed, he can learn. Although he’s never been a particularly good student (in fact, he’s failed miserably more than a few times, less out of an inability to learn and more out of sheer laziness), I know that, when the subject matter consists of something he actually enjoys or cares a little bit about, he can do very, very well.

I decided, rather than to subject myself to a meal of purely processed food, I’d go ahead and whip up a salad to go along. (My brother, the “future culinary student,” I should mention, is probably the least adventurous eater I know and has, since he was a child, refused to indulge in any kid of vegetable, specifically the green kind.) I was chopping a red bell pepper I found in the fridge, and Steven asked what kind of pepper it was. It kind of shocked me that he didn’t recognize a bell pepper, and I had to remind myself that, growing up, my parents rarely served us fresh vegetables and, even if they had, Steven probably wouldn’t have eaten them.

He asked me if those are the kinds of peppers in Louisiana Hot Sauce, and I said, “Probably not. Bell peppers are sweet,” and, with that, offered him a slice to try. He sort of made a face, shook his head and said, “No thanks.”

Here is where I start to see Brother’s visions of becoming a chef somewhat unrealistic.

“Steven,” I said (admonished), “if you’re going to be a chef, you’re going to have to know what food tastes like. They’re going to offer you stranger things than bell peppers in culinary school.”

Somewhat reluctantly, he took the bell pepper, snapped off one bite, and handed it back to me. He said he didn’t think it had much flavor. I told him that was probably because he’s not used to eating fresh, unsalted, unprocessed food. He tends to limit his diet to that which comes from a box or can.

Moments like these remind me of how different Brother and I are. It’s almost as if we were raised in different homes. I’m not really sure how he became the way he is and I became the way I am. I’m definitely more self-sufficient, but I don’t think our parents forced me to be that way and not him.

When I was 10, I decided I didn’t like the way my mother folded my laundry. She left too many wrinkles. You know how some check-out clerks at department stores will wad your clothes up into a ball and stuff them in a bag instead of folding them neatly? That’s kind of how my mother does laundry. I tried to show her how I like my laundry folded, and she told me if I didn’t like the way she did things, I could do my own laundry. So I did. And I have ever since. I don’t think, even at 19, my brother does his own laundry.

I started cooking for myself my freshman year of HS (maybe even before that?) because I converted to veganism. A couple of years later, when I started eating meat, I still cooked for myself and, sometimes, for the rest of the family, because I had discovered fresh foods and would not longer put up with the thinking that canned corn constituted a vegetable. Last night was the first time, in my memory, Steven has cooked anything besides Ramen.

Still, I believe, if he’ll just open his mind a bit and be receptive to experiencing new things, he’ll make a good culinary student and maybe even a good chef someday. I would love to see him succeed, not because success happened upon him (which I think, more often than not, is the case with him), but because he found something he wants to do and is good at and worked hard. Really, really hard. It would do him good to have to work for something, to have to do a few things on his own.

And yes, I’ll admit, Hamburger Helper tastes much better with a pinch of Italian seasoning.

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