I’ve spent hours in the kitchen in my life. Growing up, during my parents’ dinner parties, my sister and I would help in the kitchen with plating, serving, and gathering Tupperware for Leftover Fridge Tetris, my favorite game. Until I was almost 20 in college, I wasn’t a great cook, but I cooked. And I overcooked. I got creative with a college student budget. I watched Top Chef and marveled at their skill. I wondered how they cooked quickly, yet didn't burn anything, while I’d somehow mess things up. Part of this, I know now, is the joy of cooking on a gas stove, but more on that later.
While living in South Florida, my then-boyfriend and I would make the same Korean stir-fry, drink wine, snuggle, and watch Lost, and talk about it every week. As the weeks went by, we got more creative with our vegetable choices and side dishes. It was a tradition we both looked forward to, no matter how much traffic we sat through on I-95 or how tiring our first post-college jobs were. There was tradition and experimentation in that food. By the time I moved to Texas for grad school, I was using my kitchen a lot more. I grew tired of the food at the university student center, which next to both my place of education and my place of employment. I lived on a student budget and luckily lived close enough to campus that I could walk home even for 45 minutes and stuff my face between classes. I was still watching Top Chef, and as a design grad student, spent hours on my work, class prep, and grading.
Fast forward to the present: most of my stories revolve around food. It’s the best way I know to show gratitude toward others and I fill with love, appreciation, and vulnerability when I cook for others. I spend the most time awake in my kitchen than any other room of my home. I even prefer to code or design in my kitchen, sometimes—It’s a place of creation and experience. And I’m a better designer and coder because of cooking, and vice-versa.
In grad school, I wrote my master’s thesis in my last year about a redesign I did for a nationally known student-run online editorial. The first semester, I spent the entire time meeting with editors, doing research, photographing the historic childhood home of writer Katherine Ann Porter (where grad students would conduct their writing residencies), and adding Google Analytics to their existing site. The time was about collecting, gathering, and communicating.
In my last semester, I redesigned the website and branding, coded the site, and wrote and defended my thesis. This schedule was intentional, yet as I look back I notice things about myself I didn’t realize before. As hunters and gathers, humans used to take time to scope out their food, be it an animal or greens. We hunted, we gathered, we foraged. We figured out what we had, what we needed right away, what we need to find, and how to prepare our food. We still do this with cooking today. We spend time in grocery stores, farmers markets, and taking to each other about the food we’ve eaten and where. We prepare a meal by chopping vegetables, searching through in our messy spice cabinets, and heating up our coconut oil, before adding things to it. We don’t empty our groceries into a large pan and cook everything at once—we’re a lot more patient than that (usually). We plan, we organize ourselves, and we patiently add things at the right time. Isn’t that how we design and develop, too? If we get all the ingredients we need prepped before hand, we get to enjoy more of the cooking, and are more likely getting it right because we’re not a distracted grad student turning away to chop onions while the oil burns and sets off the fire alarm.
Once I felt that I was enjoying cooking and enjoying the food that I made, I asked my mom about a lot of the Indian dishes she makes. She used to do cooking classes in our house and those were the best days, as long as the other students left something for us—ha. She wouldn’t necessary share a lot of measurements. She trusted her instincts and senses to tell her when to add something or if a dish was ready. This is my favorite inherited habit, even if I didn’t know it or uses it at first. When I start to cook I don’t measure ingredients or my spices. If it smells like my mom or grandma’s kitchen, I know I’m on the right track. That comes from experience and removes patience and time. There's something very instinctual about that knowing how much needed to be in each apartment. That's an instinct that altered my design and coding process, especially when units like vw, percentage, and ems/rems came into play. I’m not saying that I design without numbers; I think CSS wouldn’t necessarily work in my favor if I omitted them. I am saying that with the inclusion of those units and a new mentality, we were all forced to step away from being pixel perfect and measured. It was better to introduce a breakpoint when things were too stretched or squished, rather than calculating breakpoints at every 250 pixels. And when we overcooked, overdesigned, and/or overcoded something, we learned about the limits of our capabilities, which is a part of learning and the most important ingredient the next time we cook something up (edible or not).
Cooking with gas
And now back to gas stoves. Until I got my own home, the only times I had cooked on gas grills were in my parents’ home. And while I was so excited to see my pour over coffee water boil quicker than I can count to a hundred, I started burning other foods again! After whiny calls to my mom, it dawned on me that I needed to relearn how to use a gas grill after years of apartment electric tops. I needed to learn that my heat-on-medium on my gas stove is like a 7 or 8 on an electric stove. That I may need to keep an eye on what I’m making until I remember and learn to recalculate without reminding myself. I learned the hard way that everything gets hotter faster, including pot handles, so I use a kitchen towel or oven mitt. Eventually, I knew, it would be natural. And this is a good thing because it is like the building the web. New capabilities with coding languages, design programs, devices, and unaddressed accessibility problems, drive us to relearn and re-calibrate ourselves. I remember waves of learning through the earliest days of Responsive Web Design, through Flex-box, through frameworks, and more. Now, I’m enjoying the challenge and I am a better equipped to continue learning about the abilities of CSS Grid. We should embrace the tools we have access to and appreciate our ability to learn, but also realize that maybe a gas stove or a certain design tool might not be for everyone. We have to find what works for our cooking or designing/coding style or the project/meal at hand.
I mentioned earlier that cooking feels like gratitude for others. We can take that approach to design and making sites, too. We’re making things for others. That’s a wonderful feeling and we’re lucky to do so. We have the ability to create connections, stories, and provide what people need, in food or information. We can be thoughtful about others’ food allergies or include high-contrast type or ARIA tags for accessibility. With a handful of exciting ingredients and thoughtful steps, we can provide an experience, be it a meal or site. With patience and experimentation, we build well. And that’s a lovely reminder, or at least food for thought.
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