How Roxane Gay Taught Herself to Cook

"Always add more cheese than the recipe calls for."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Roxane Gay is the best-selling author of Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger, and she’s also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. At home in Los Angeles, she demonstrated how to make one of her favorite Smitten Kitchen recipes, and reflected on the importance of cooking in her life. 

My earliest memories of cooking are watching my mom cook because she cooked for us as a family. She would not let me come in the kitchen or teach me how to cook, but she did with my brothers because she didn't want me to end up cooking for a man. True story.

I started cooking when I became a vegetarian. My mom is also a vegetarian and has been for a very long time. I was living in rural Illinois, and I just knew that, if I didn't learn how to cook, I was going to go hungry because what people considered to be vegetarian food was French fries and iceberg lettuce. So I started to cook with the help of Ina Garten.

Ina just knows she's excellent and never apologizes for it, which I think is really useful for women.

I watched a lot of Food Network. Food Network is actually really educational, and Ina is so confident and pretty. Ina just knows she's excellent and never apologizes for it, which I think is really useful for women. I appreciate that she had no problem claiming that excellence. There is no shame in it, and I wish more people would be like that.
At first, cooking felt like a necessity because I was just so unfamiliar with it. But at some point, it just transitioned into a joy because it was so relaxing. I would come home from a long day of teaching and be able to make a good recipe.          

A good recipe is one I can follow that has ingredients that I can recognize. If it's something that I feel like I can put together in a reasonable amount of time and feel like I have invented fire, that's the best kind of recipe. I love Smitten Kitchen and Alison Roman’s recipes.
I cook for myself and my partner, who does not cook. She makes two dishes, and she tells me with absolute sincerity, "I make really good popcorn." She also makes roast chicken, which is a real dish.
I love baking for other people. Baking is sort of my thing. The precision of baking, I just love it. It's just really relaxing. I love knowing that I can put together flour and butter and eggs and sugar and something really awesome and delicious is going to come out of it.

I picked this pasta recipe because I've made it before, and I knew I could do it well. And, also, I just love Smitten Kitchen. Her recipes are really well done. They're tested for the kind of kitchen that normal people cook in, and her food is just goddamn delicious. She offers substitutes for people who are gluten-free or vegetarian or kosher. And I really appreciate that she acknowledges that everyone has a different relationship to food.

Everyone has a different relationship to food.

And who doesn't want pasta? This recipe also has a lot of cheese — melted cheese. Always add more cheese than the recipe calls for, which is one of my Ten Commandments. It’s a real crowd-pleaser. And you can serve it with a meat dish if you want protein or if you care about nutrition. 

I oftentimes get ideas for what to cook on Twitter; or if I'm stuck on a recipe, or if I need something specific, I'll go onto Twitter and ask a question. I will always get far more responses than I'm looking for, but I'm really grateful that people tend to have so many opinions. Right now, I'm trying to perfect croissants, and it's a very expensive hobby because there’s a lot of really good butter out there. Every time I try and I fail, I go and I talk about it on Twitter, and people give me tips and send me recipes, and it's just really great. 
There’s a sense of community around cooking because everybody eats. Babies and cooking and animals are the things where people tend to go beyond the banal cruelties of social media to engage with, and I appreciate that very much.

There’s a sense of community around cooking because everybody eats. 

Photos by Oriana Koren

One of the through lines in Hunger was about coming to cooking and allowing myself to believe, as a fat woman, that I deserve to eat good food and that I deserve to cook for myself. And so, in that way, cooking shapes what I write when I acknowledge that it's okay to feed hunger. And to enjoy it because you're definitely told, just culturally, that you're not supposed to enjoy food. You know, eat some bread and water and call it a day, and lose weight. You can do all of that but eat good food. Use good ingredients. And I just try to always remember that, and I try to include that perspective in my writing instead of surrendering to a diet culture that prefers that people deny themselves.