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Skillet Flambé,
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Skillet Flambé, a Suite Dish
Medill senior gives up cafeteria food and learns that cooking a meal like mom's is no small potatoes.
by Esther Chou


Esther Chou

Photo by Jasper Chen
I pride myself on my cooking abilities. During high school I could always be counted on to cook rice (measure rice, add water, turn on the rice cooker). Preparing meat involved taking it out of the freezer, defrosting it in the microwave and watching my mom cook it. And although I was slow at chopping vegetables, at least I never cut myself.

When five friends and I moved into a coveted Kemper Hall singles suite, we swore off cafeteria food and eagerly looked forward to delicious, healthy, homemade meals every night. No more mashed potatoes and greasy fried chicken; we had fried rice, fish cakes and kimchi to look forward to. The singles suites in Kemper are blessed with a kitchen, including a 10.5-cubic-foot refrigerator, and we intended to use it.

One day during New Student Week, I was about to pan-fry trout on one of our newly bought skillets. The stove was turned to high, and I waited for the oil to warm up. Then a wisp of smoke slowly rose from the bottom of the skillet. Suddenly, a pillar of fire enveloped the utensil, shot up and licked at the bottom of the vent hood.

The kitchen filled with thick gray smoke. Someone managed to open the windows and doors. I stood there holding the blackened skillet in my hand, not knowing what to do with it. Then, the worst happened: “EEEEEEE EEEEEEE EEEEEEE EEEEEEEEEE!” The smoke alarm went off. The six of us stood in the dining area in shock, waiting for the next disaster. The resident assistant rushed in, surprised that we had started the school year so badly so soon. Since the fire went out and the smoke alarm eventually stopped, she called off the fire department.

Despite this mishap, I retained some lofty dinner ideas from my mother: steamed fish with ginger and green onions, wide noodles with tofu and bean curd sauce, shredded radish with shiitake mushrooms and ground pork. However, my suitemates, four Asian Americans and one Latina, wised up much sooner than I. They recognized the restrictions of a small kitchen and limited time and accordingly decided to cook and eat simply. Christina and Katherine often make noodle soup or rice with seaweed. Di stir-fries vegetables and pork. Theresa bakes frozen chicken and uses sauce packets to make soup. Isabel grills hot dogs on her George Foreman contraption. I’ve realized now that devoting two to three hours every day cooking, eating and cleaning isn’t a very practical way to spend time, especially when I have hundreds of pages to read. So now I boil everything — eggs, fish, broccoli, chicken, green peas — add a little salt and eat it with rice.

It’s unclear if the skillet fire was the catalyst, but the relationship with my five friends has changed as well. For one thing, there’s the garbage issue. At first no one wanted to take out the trash, so everyone learned to balance each piece of rubbish so the basket wouldn’t topple over and anoint the unfortunate person to whom that happened as the one to empty it. Eventually one of my suitemates got fed up and assigned each of us a day to take out the trash.

Our conversations in the suite changed, too. They now usually center on food instead of shopping, clothes and boys. After each grocery-shopping trip, we even compare receipts to see who spent the most money — $98 is the current high — and who spent the least. In years past I complained about my reading load and the food in the residence halls. I still complain about school, but now there are the messy kitchen, unwashed dishes and the ongoing trash saga to throw into the mix.

Still, I view my suitemates as very much a family and Suite 220 as very much our home. At 6 p.m. we sit around the dinner table and catch up on everyone’s day. Though we cook individual meals, we sample others’ cooking, especially if someone has put more effort than usual into it.

So far, we’ve tasted Katherine’s gogi jun (ground meat and tofu patties), Theresa’s spinach dip, Christina’s California rolls, Isabel’s quesadillas and Di’s zha-jiang mian (noodles with bean curd sauce).

And we’re learning new things every day. Sandwich turkey from the deli spoils after one week, dirty dishes don’t wash themselves, trash in wastebaskets starts to grow microbes if it isn’t emptied on a regular basis. And it pays to watch all pots, especially skillets with hot oil.

Esther Chou of Plano, Texas, a senior in the Medill School of Journalism, only makes one dish better than her mother: potato salad. She hopes to be a newspaper reporter.

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