Over 20 years ago, I was hanging out with The Language Lover in her kitchen. Her mother was whipping up some fried rice. I was intrigued because, though I knew a lot about cooking, it had never occurred to me that I could make my own fried rice. That was something you get at a Chinese restaurant, not something you make at home. So LL's mom showed me how it was done. (Hardly a complicated recipe, I know, but still someone had to tell me the ingredients and steps.) She also, vainly, tried to show me how to hold chopsticks properly. I mastered the fried rice, but I'm afraid LL's mom would still chuckle a little at the way I hold chopsticks.
That fried rice became a staple in my college cooking repertoire. I went to a college where living in the dorms was required, so most people ate in the dining halls. But, I got very lucky and lived in much smaller, college-owned houses for my last 3 years, houses that had 5-15 residents and kitchens, so I was allowed to go off-board and feed myself. This saved my parents about $600 a term, but it never occurred to them that they should maybe forward some of that to me so I could buy food. Instead, I was left to scrounge on my measly 8 hour a week work study income and the occasional gift. I ate a lot of fried rice, bagels, and baked potatoes. Fried rice was great because it was so cheap and easy. All the ingredients are staples. And I could either dress it up with chicken if I was making it right after payday or I could make it all veggie but still feel like I was getting a filling meal even if I didn't afford meat until the next week. And one batch would make at least 3 meals.
It was also a go-to meal for making when guests were coming over because I could make a lot for not much money. Like when my dad came to visit my senior year. You might think I made him such a cheap meal in the hopes that he would see my food poverty and take me grocery shopping, but the 3 Gin and Tonics that P made him undercut my efforts. (He still fondly recalls those drinks, P.) I do think he genuinely liked the rice, too, but that may have been the G&Ts talking.
The fried rice helped out a lot my first years out of college when I was making next to nothing and had to live paycheck to paycheck while paying rent. Then came the leanest of all years, law school. At my lowest point in law school, I had only $11 left to my name. One beautiful batch of fried rice got me through that horrible week to my next paycheck.
I haven't made much fried rice in the last few years. I've reverted to getting my fried rice only from Chinese restaurants while I cook a bit more extravagantly. I'm just not in that mindset of eating as cheaply as I can anymore. It's more risotto than fried rice these days. But this evening, I was thinking about going out and spending too much money on dinner because I just didn't have anything to eat at home. Moxie, though, got into my head. She's been experimenting with not going to the grocery story, not even to buy one ingredient, but instead cooking with the things she already has. Because the reality is that even when you say, "I have nothing to eat," you always have something. We all have rice (I have 3 kinds) and pasta (2 kinds right now) and cans of something and onions and garlic and condiments.
I realized I had half an onion that should be used up and a bag of carrots and an egg... So I thought, "I'll make fried rice!" And it was yummy. As I was eating, I realized LL's mom probably has no idea that her one little cooking lesson with me got me through so many lean years and is still something I can fall back on when I want some easy, comfort food. So, LL, tell your mom thanks for me.