So – high functioning autism. It can be a bit of a fucker, but for me it comes with some benefits. In this article I’m going to be talking about food, which is one of the benefits of having a fucked up brain like mine.
Part 1 – Planning
The planning phase of cooking only really happens when I’m cooking for someone else. When I’m on my own I’ll eat crap most of the time. Since moving into my own place (more on that in the near future) I’ve gotten better at this, but it’s still a battle with my fluctuating appetite. I tend to overeat by a LOT.
Anyway, planning. When I’m cooking it tends to be for friends, so it’s been a while since I’ve really done any cooking. When I plan for a meal I pick a couple of base ideas – is it a stew? pasta? chilli? – then I’ll pick a base ingredient. Since becoming vegetarian this has become more constrained, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can make. There’s substitutes available for a lot of dishes, things like quorn, soy mince, or straight up using vegetables instead of meats.
Once these decisions have been made, I’ll choose some secondary ingredients, the stuff like onions, carrots etc… the backup singers of sorts.
Part 2 – Preparation
Before I start cooking anything I’ll prepare everything. Chop up what needs chopping, put a pan on the boil, peeling – anything that can take the focus away from the main cooking task if it’s attempted at the same time.
The best part about prep is you can do it well in advance; sometimes I’ll buy base ingredients and prep them for the week so I can just pull a tub out of the fridge and stir-fry it or whatever. It certainly makes for a much easier life, especially when paired with a slow cooker and smart house (again, more on that in the near future)
Part 3 – Cooking
Cooking is an arcane process. There, I said it. If you ask me exactly how I do what I do, I’ll just shrug and say “autism”. This is where my /disorder/ comes into play.
On the base of it, cooking is easily reduced to “heating up food” – but it’s very possible to cook badly. Thankfully I’ve mostly been subjected to good cooking, the type of people I associate with take care to make a good job of the things they do; this means I’ve had a good platform to build off when I cook.
As we all know, fried food tastes the best. It’s an objective opinion. I’ll fry a lot of foods, but obviously that’s not always possible… you can’t fry a stew. Well ok – you /shouldn’t/ fry a stew. So it’s important to take that into account. Honestly experience is the best teacher here. If you don’t know which to use, teach yourself. Try each and decide which tastes the best.
Part 3a – MAGIC
Right. At the beginning of this article I mentioned “high functioning autism” – this is where it comes into play.
In my head I don’t see pictures. It’s always been kind of frustrating – I don’t have a visual imagination where other people do. However I’ve discovered that my imagination and memory work on other senses – specifically smell and taste. I’ve got a very sensitive nose, to the point where I need to cross the street when passing a Lush or Body Shop. The amount of vanilla in those places is enough to knock me senseless. It does come with some advantages however; here’s a minor example – if I’m not sure if there’s sugar in my tea or coffee, I can check by smell. I can tell how much sugar has been added too. It’s a neat little trick.
The big one for me though is my imaginary taste. I can pick tastes that I’m familiar with and blend them together in my head – I know ahead of time how something is going to taste, which in cooking is obviously an amazing advantage. I’m a big fan of those milkshake places that put sweets into your milkshake, they have a lot of pre-made mixes, but every time I go in I pick my own pairings, safe in the knowledge that whatever pair of sweets I choose is going to make for something delicious.
In terms of cooking it takes me to the most important point:
Part 4 – Seasoning
Let me tell you this for nothing: food without seasoning is bland. That’s why seasoning is a thing. It’s why we have spice racks and cupboards full of little jars of herbs. There’s an industry built from the importance of seasoning.
So how do you choose a seasoning? Tricky question. For me, it’s easy. I just think about it and know what will go best. For people without my abilities, you’re going to have a harder time. You’ll need to try different things until you figure it out for yourself, or trust someone else’s judgement.
BONUS – ADVICE FOR EVERYONE
Alright, so you’ve had a little insight into where my brain goes when I’m cooking – what should you do with it?
In a word, experiment. Neurotypical people rarely have taste and smell superpowers, but there’s still a lot to learn from here – First and foremost I can’t imagine what something tastes like if I’ve never had it myself. Everyone will learn in this way. Try new things and build up a library of “herbs and spices that I like”, and use them in recipes.
Always try before and after – try your sauce before adding in a new flavour, then try it afterwards. Compare the two in your mind. This should be easy since they’ll be fresh in your memory. It’s a simple comparison in this case – is it better, or worse?
Take notes. A friend of mine is constantly writing recipes, trying things from books and writing new versions based on experience. Do the same! Take what you’ve found in books and make it your own, you’ll find new paths to creativity. Remember the more you do this, the better you’ll get.
Take second, and third, and fourth… opinions. Ask other people what they think, not just what they think of the end product but what they think of your before and after when you add a new flavour. Ask your partner or a friend to join you in the kitchen and have them test things as you go; remember, it’s not just about you.
Let me know what you think about my style of cooking, if you want to see more cooking posts, or more “my brain on…” posts. I could throw the odd recipe in here and there and you can try them out and give me your thoughts.