DI Voices | My college guardian angel: The kitchen

By Nathaniel Langley, Senior Columnist

I make baked ziti. For the fifth time this school year, I stuff the hefty casserole dish into the oven. Following its “let me use two layers of oven pads to get this thing in” push, melting mozzarella stretches across the top. I plop onto my couch while it bakes: “Real Housewives” time.

My apartment kitchen is my day’s beginning and end; I spin, eating breakfast and dinner on the red stool beside the countertop. The kitchen’s my therapy, I reflect on how life has led me here while chopped onions draw tears from me. Once I’m done chopping and the music turns on, the tile floor holds a dancing me.

Apartment kitchens are not set decorations. They don’t exist to wander past while we haul Green Street delicacies like tonight’s Mia Za’s or Shawarma Joint. Nor should they be museum exhibits: A corner of the apartment we examine and wonder, “Huh. What a lovely dust collection.”

Beyond practicality, cooking saves me from financial failure. Considering the sharp rise in groceries, making my meals ensures some lengthy cane labeled “He spent too much on takeout” doesn’t snatch me from my time in Champaign-Urbana.

I’m a tall guy. I’m gonna eat. But spending $20 for one meal at Mia Za’s, tip and Caesar salad included, is bank robbery. Why, Mr. Za? Why punish us? Prices that high would bring Bonnie and Clyde to the kitchen too.

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But biking through Urbana’s bumpy brick roads, I arrive at Schnucks. With that night’s recipe locked and loaded on my phone, my cart fills with ingredients.

If I’m in the Italian mood, staples like San Marzano tomatoes, parmesan, parsley and basil join me. If it’s a Greek night, expect olives, feta and lemons to the mix. Since I stick to the Mediterranean schtick, prepare for orzo to drop in too.

Hauling the items into one reusable bag — ready for my bike ride back — I lose $50. Twice as much as a single Mia Za’s night, sure, but my home meal lasts five to six nights. If my liberal arts math isn’t wrong, that’s about $10 a night — half than what I’d give Mr. Za for a single dinner.

Besides financial relief, the kitchen teaches me about myself. Starting with my first meal, cooking lets me know it won’t come easy.

There’s a fire in my oven. During my first meal, oil slips from my Target garlic chicken. I later learn the “baking sheet” I use is no sheet; the pan’s round edges let oil drip into its inferno. Having a chef for a roommate junior year, I walk in shame to our balcony and plead with wide eyes to him for help.

There hasn’t been a fire since — knock on wood. Instead, I burn with passion to carry on and cook. Muffins and baking enter the mix as well, once inflation hikes their prices: Banana chocolate chip becomes my baked ziti of baking.

Cooking isn’t natural to me. I dread a blazing oven. Amidst my baked ziti yank out of the oven, I question what would I eat if I drop and spill the dish. My heart sprints and smolders while I trust oven pads with my life and hunger.

Still, the kitchen pushes me out of my comfort zone. During that fierce, first meal, layers of oven pads sit in my hand while flames grip my chicken. Today, I’m down to two hot pads.

I’ll never be “Mr. Kitchen Man,” barehanding a hot dish from the oven. Yet, the kitchen carries me toward confidence. From cooking, I learn what tastes excite me; what flavors fuse. 

Although I enjoy the skillet more than venturing into the oven, the stove’s my collegiate companion. I’d starve without my apartment’s metal beauty. Yeah, oil splashes it once chicken meets olive oil, but the appliance holds hope.

In my time at the University, my retreats into the kitchen lend me sanity. Whether I close a tough “let’s write three papers at once” day by cooking, or begin my week watching Sunday’s blueberry muffins rise in the oven window, the kitchen makes my apartment a home.

It’s not like I’ll never see a kitchen again now that I’m graduating. No, I’ll keep cooking. But the addictive joy of sharing what I make will shift. Texts to my mom featuring finished meals tell her I’m surviving college. Away from home, the messages share a triumph: I’m okay here; while on my own, I’m making it happen.

From my Urbana apartment couch, Memorial Stadium shines a second sun into the wide night. The microwave timer beeps, the baked ziti’s ready. The kitchen feeds me for another six nights — better than Green Street’s best takeout.

Now graduating, I’m cooked through as a student. I make my life from here, with kitchen camaraderie pushing me forth and ziti on my plate.

 

Nathaniel is a senior in LAS.

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