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COLUMNIST: Cooking Aliens

Last month I was abducted by an alien who loves to cook. Or perhaps I was possessed by some sort of demon Betty Crocker who takes over a human body to get her baking fix. It's also possible, say local friends, that the Minnesota winter finally got to me. I'm still not sure what happened. All I know is that, in the last month, I have cooked more than I've ever cooked in my entire life.

I didn't start out hating to cook. When I was young, I had a hint of precocious culinary brilliance. At the age of seven, I prepared my younger brother pancakes in shades of vibrant orange and turquoise, thanks to small vials of food coloring in our pantry. By the age of ten I baked my first chocolate cake, and worked my way through a chocolate-lovers cookbook. When I was a teenager, I cooked gourmet meals with friends. Our most impressive gastronomic adventure occurred in late December of my senior year of high school when we crafted a complete Victorian Christmas dinner featuring a whole roasted goose.

My early gastronomic promise diminished as soon as I got to college. Dining halls made me complacent. I became culinarily indolent, a food sloth. Living for ten years in a city with 24-hour restaurant delivery, gourmet delicatessens on every corner, and an almost non-existent kitchen accelerated the deterioration of my remaining food preparation skills. Living alone also entails the first law of bachelor cooking which states that any perishable ingredients purchased in order to prepare food for one person will only be sold in amounts suitable to prepare food for entire families, leaving leftover ingredients that will evolve into piles of rotting food. Hence, you might understand why, by the time I moved to a house with a kitchen larger than a breadbox, any cooking muscles I had ever flexed were well atrophied.

I spent my first two years of home-ownership in a state of gridlock resistance with my kitchen. I felt drained by every bout with a pan. I dreaded opening the refrigerator door to assess my limited options. If I were less of a food lover, I might have been able to make do with crackers and the occasional slice of cheese. Unfortunately, though New York City didn't do much for my cooking, its restaurants and their culinary delights only amplified my love of food.

I don't know what caused the change in my relationship with my kitchen. Somehow, over the last month, something shifted inside of me. I found myself puttering with new ingredients and leafing through cookbooks. My refrigerator started to overflow with Tupperware containers full of leftovers. My husband came home from work expecting me to force him to cook, and instead he found gourmet meals. He put his hand on my forehead to check me for a fever. "Who are you and what did you do with my wife?" he asked.

Looking back, I can point to a few precursors for my change of heart. In October, I rehearsed and performed a show in Wisconsin. My two castmates--both men--were phenomenal cooks. Rehearsal break conversations would invariably wander toward cooking. Which variety of rosemary best enhanced the flavor of New Zealand lamb? What baking method creates the crispiest bread crust? Their discussions of specialty cookware were especially baffling to me, as these two men could wax poetic about the oddest items in their kitchens. The castmate with whom I shared a kitchen had a daily breadbaking habit, and it wasn't difficult to get used to eating fresh bread every morning.

In November I was at an Arkansas writer's colony for one month. Right above me, there was a suite geared for cooking writers complete with a state-of-the-art test kitchen. For two weeks, a culinary herbalist named Susan cooked masterful dishes and brought care packages to her fellow writers to eat.

When I arrived back home in December, I was keen to try out some of the new recipes I had learned from Susan. I made rosemary nut bars and a couple of fine dinners. My cooking frenzy petered out when I started a post-holiday diet, but in January I visited my friend Mickie in Minneapolis. Mickie is a fine cook, and she loves magazines full of recipes. One day while browsing her magazines, an interesting slow cooker recipe caught my eye. It was for a Moroccan beef stew, and it sounded delicious. Mickie asked me if I'd like a copy of the recipe. She whipped open her handy printer/scanner/copier, and the next thing I knew, I had color copies of three recipes from the magazine. I took the piece of paper to the supermarket, and loaded my cart up with the ingredients. The next morning, I chopped for 10 minutes and placed the ingredients in a slow cooker. Low and behold, eight hours later, I had a gourmet meal in hand. Delicious food for such little effort? I was hooked. Soon I found myself trying more complicated recipes. My efforts did not end with the edible. The next thing I knew, I was mixing up my own environmentally-friendly cleaning products from vinegars and essential oils.

My father came for a visit from Virginia last weekend. He is very used to living in a house kept impeccably clean by my mother. I'm not nearly as good a cleaner, but I figured I could cook him good things to eat. I made white-chocolate cheesecake with homemade raspberry sauce. I remade my successful Moroccan stew. I prepared fresh oatmeal-coconut-chocolate-chip cookies, asparagus-leek quiche, and raspberry streusel muffins. Even I was shocked at myself. I watched my hands moving and the ingredients whipping together. I saw the oven door open and my hands putting pots in and taking them out. I was in as much shock as my husband was as each dish ended up in our bellies.

My dad had never seen me cook so much before, and said so. I explained my theory about having been abducted by a cooking alien. My dad asked if I'd be willing to lend him my cooking alien so he could bring it home and have it abduct my mother. I laughed, but found myself feeling strangely possessive of my new cooking alien, and declined to let it go.

I made a flourless hazelnut-chocolate cake on Saturday. It's now Monday, and there are only two pieces left for tonight's dessert. Tomorrow, I'm going to need to ask my cooking alien to make something new. I'm very glad that I didn't agree to give it to my father to take home.