Learning to take the kitchen heat

I've never been much of a cook; fortunately, I've never had to be.

Until now, that is.

One of the conditions to my living in an off-campus apartment this year was that I would have to forgo the hot, fresh, lovingly prepared dining-hall meals I had grown so fond of in Ithaca. I'm now fending for myself in the kitchen.

This means no more apple pie at every meal, no more chicken Caesar wraps or personalized omelets whenever the fancy strikes and, worst of all, no more people cleaning up my mess and washing my dishes once the little party's over.

Instead, I have a brand-new kitchen all to myself, cabinets full of cheap or donated utensils and the responsibility of keeping the fridge stocked with actual meals (for anyone wondering why I'm staying with my retail job, there's your answer).

It's important to note that I'm not exactly a novice in the kitchen. I've experimented enough with after-school snacks to be able to say with confidence that I can whip up one incredible quesadilla. Plus, I'm great at boiling hot dogs, and my ramen noodles are positively delectable ... so, yeah, I've got experience.

But the general rule that applies to my life applies to my cooking as well -- I'll usually make only one mistake, but for me, that's all it takes.

When I first stocked up on groceries at the supermarket, I carried around a list of all my favorite things (including chimichangas, rice pilaf, chicken strips, salt-and-vinegar chips and Otter Pops). But as my cart started to fill with all my fantasy meal items, I realized something was wrong. My cart didn't look the same as the ones my stepmom had been compiling at home all my life, the one I was hoping to replicate. There seemed to be something missing ... a certain color ... something more ... .

"Oh, well," I said to myself, grabbing a few boxes of triple-chunk brownie mix from the shelf.

At home, I realized my crucial mistake. I had shopped like a snacker on some sugar-fueled fat binge (which, in my defense, is exactly what I was). While I definitely had satisfied the three main food groups (chocolate, carbs and preservatives), I had neglected greens altogether.

And what about entrees? I seemed to forget in my shopping euphoria that every meal needs a centerpiece.

So it was back to the supermarket to pick up the slack. Soon I was in business.

But even when I had all the pieces, things still didn't come together. The other night, I tried to cook a pot pie in the oven, which was an investment on my part (those things take about an hour to cook all the way through, and I was starving to begin with). I had to place the tray on a flimsy disposable cookie sheet because I hadn't bought a real one yet. So, after biting my nails and chewing on ice for 65 anxious minutes, I went to lift the pot pie out of the oven with one hand.

There it was. Small mistake, big repercussions.

The pan wilted pathetically under the pie's weight, sending it face-down to its splattery fate on the bottom of the blazing stove and its burners.

Smoke started to drift out as the pie's innards were fried by the stove's inside walls. The paper tray that once contained the pie had caught fire on one of the burners and I frantically put it out with one of my oven mitts. Crying inside for the death of my meal, I quickly used a spatula in a kind of search-and-rescue mission to try to salvage what I could and scrape away the rest before the fire alarm sounded and the building had to be evacuated and I had to tell everyone just how much of an ignoramus I actually am.

Disaster struck again when I tried to make those brownies I bought after a long day at work/school. By that time, I already had made many a batch of brownies and could mix the ingredients in my sleep. I could even tell when they were ready without setting the timer or looking at the clock -- it's like I can feel when they reach that ultimate state of deliciousness.

But, of course, one small mistake proved ruinous once again.

I had cooked some Top Ramen on the stove a while earlier and had mistakenly left the burner on (a little habit I'm famous for at home). After pulling the brownies out of the oven and admiring them for a moment, I placed them on the stove top and walked away.

A few minutes later, smoke seemed to be everywhere. I had, of course, placed the brownies on a hot burner, which at once put me at risk of social humiliation (AGAIN) and ruined a batch of brownies at the same time.

I remember hating myself at that moment. Of all the blunders I had wrought over these past 19 years, this one seemed the most miserable. I had messed up the thing I usually use to feel better when I mess things up. The implications were dismal.

My one saving grace in this world is that I'm almost as good at cleaning up messes as I am at making them in the first place. The exception, of course, is dishes.

I hate doing dishes. Always have. At home, I was raised to clean up after myself immediately after making the mess. This was easy, and made sense. But now that I'm responsible to and for me and me alone, with no parents or roommates breathing down my neck to take care of business, dishes tend to sit in my sink until I've completely run out of them. Even then, I wash only what's needed and put off the rest even longer.

The result is, as you can imagine, completely disgusting. It actually makes me feel less human when I see the mess I've made by the end of the week.

Still, despite its many pitfalls, self-catering suits me. I can munch on whatever I want whenever I want and wherever I want. I'm getting better at shopping, I no longer forget to defrost my chicken in the morning, and I finally got a real cookie sheet so as not to repeat the Great Pot Pie Crash of 2007.

And as it turns out, burnt brownies aren't that bad.

Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago.