The Trials of Student Cooking
“I’m going to a dinner,” I say one Thursday evening in late October, explaining the butternut squash lying on our kitchen counter, “where we all make things from the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen cookbook.” My flatmate is amused at once by this piece of information and the steady stream of gourds which had begun to appear in our home as if by divine providence. As I open the kitchen door, squash in tow, he/she/ they smilingly agrees that that sounds fun and is “the most St Andrews thing ever.”
That night, the dining table of a student flat was progressively filled in anticipation of a feast. Each arriving guest bore a colourfully laden bowl; my butternut squash with orange oil and burnt agave was nestled between a bowl of curried chickpeas and a frothy coriander-pistachio dressing to accompany a plate of smashed carrots and pickled onions. Everything, cheese with za’atar pesto, was vegan, including Julija Koletnik’s tomato and courgette loaf—made with spelt flour no less. Koletnik, the host of this particular dinner and known culinary enthusiast, admits that when it comes to the kitchen, she has “pretentious... written all over [her ].”
Many of her culinary escapades, as well as those of friends in St Andrews and at home, are recorded on “unfeud,” an Instagram account begun while she was at school. “It all started when me and my best friend thought it would be funny to start posting photos of our friends while eating,” she recalls. “But, as I started cooking more and photographing the dishes, ‘unfeud’ progressed to a food account.” In the years since, friends and acquaintances have grown accustomed to frequent posts and daily stories, an artfully curated selection of images and recipes, a love letter to friends and food. Occasionally, she occupies her place on the maximalist extreme of the St Andrews food scene with a touch of shame, “especially when [her] friends from home [her] ask whether [she is] a middle- aged housewife or a student.” However, she is fundamentally a staunch defender of the attention she affords to cooking, citing the importance of from-scratch meals she associates with her Slovenian upbringing. In an international student community, food and cooking can sometimes be the most tangible way to hold onto our cultures—a bowl of soup doubly one of comforting familiarity. Sometimes, a day-long expedition to the Asian markets in Dundee or a foray through the shelves of a Polish store can be a fully-fledged pilgrimage.
Even with easy access to much of the food one grew up with, specific culinary experiences elicit an emotional response. For me, a warm meal prepared by and shared with a good friend is a consecrated offering, a reminder of the communal nature of food, the luxury of being cared for in such a primitive sense, of being fed. Our student lifestyles, seemingly wed to chaos, can invite the neglect of even our most basic needs. To cook for one another is, perhaps, to become a surrogate caregiver. It is a profession of love. Besides the space for experimentation, procrastination, and meditation it provides, communal cooking, Koletnik agrees, contrasts that “when [she] was younger, [her ] family would never dine together,” operating on “completely different schedules.” This changed when she came to university; dinners transformed into “an excuse to see friends, to sit down, breathe and relax.” Indeed, it was a first year tradition of Sunday dinners from which our own friendship really grew.
Her advice for the student chef who would like to up their culinary game but might feel they lack the necessary time, money, or skill? “Do not be scared to fail.” Practically, she is an advocate of staples. “Stock[ing] your cupboard with essential grains, pulses, canned things and get[ting] fresh produce as you go” is the easiest way to set your future self up for success when hunger strikes. Rather than meal prepping those “six portions of lentil bolognese” likely to prompt palate fatigue, this style of planning encourages variety without requiring an extortionate level of effort. There is no doubt that the culinary landscape in St Andrews brings up questions of the university’s culture of wealth, particularly in terms of accessible restaurant fare, so putting a bit of extra effort into a home-cooked meal can be a highly rewarding and surprisingly economical middle ground. “A £1 package of soba noodles contains three servings. A package of spinach for 80p can be used twice. A head of red cabbage (50p): 4 portions. Miso paste (£4): approximately 40 teaspoons.” With a few choice purchases,“you get to make a soba noodle buddha bowl in 20 minutes, total cost £0.90.”
Though my practices are, at times, hypocritical in this regard, my philosophy will always be one of balance. At times, food will inevitably occupy the role of an immediate and necessary fuel, taking a backseat to the pressing tasks at hand. At others, it can, and should, be an instrument of joy.