A couple of years ago, I bit off more than I could chew. I had been offered a spot in a brand-new doctoral program in a nearby city. That was the good news. The bad news was that it would start almost immediately, leaving my wife Colleen and me scrambling to find a place to stay. After a whirlwind tour of the city, we met a landlord that seemed like an all-right sort. He showed us a beautiful apartment right in the heart of downtown and near the campus.

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After agreeing that it was the place for us, he casually explained that that particular apartment was not actually up for rent – but he was offering a room next door that he was currently renovating to be “just like this one.” Once renovation was done, he claimed, there would be no problems – and when we moved in, he would even sit down with us over a celebratory glass of Glenfiddich to toast our arrival. It was a risk, but we decided to give him a month to get the work done. After all, I thought, a guy who treats his tenants to his selection of single-malts can’t be all bad.

This is life lesson No. 1: A person can have an appreciation for fine scotch and still be a total wad.

A month later, we arrived after a long, tiring move to find that none of the work had been done. The place was a disaster. There were cracks in the walls, plaster and sawdust strewn across the floor, snarls of wire jutting from electrical sockets and piles of broken glass lying in the corners. Behind a boarded-up door, we found that a stairwell to the attic had collapsed upon itself, creating a twisted doorway to nowhere and a gaping hole in the roof. This wasn’t a fixer-upper so much as a tearer-downer, the kind of place you renovate with a wrecking ball. Meanwhile, we had a rental truck full of boxes and no landlord in sight. With no other options, we moved in on top of the filth, stacking boxes throughout the already-cramped space.

After the move, Colleen and I sat among our towering piles of boxes, letting it sink in how badly we had been screwed over. We decided against unpacking much – we knew that we had to get out of there as soon as possible. Tomorrow, we could call a housing inspector and the landlord/tenant board, but until then all we could do was wait. Time crept along as we sat in the dark – cold, tired and bored out of our skulls. I cracked open the corner of one random box and found my DS. Inside was Cooking Mama 2, a cutesy cooking sim in which you prepare meals through a series of culinary mini-games.

This was dangerous. There is something about cooking games that always leaves me unsatisfied. I can play most games without a desire to emulate them in real life. After playing Tony Hawk, I’m never seized by a gripping desire to rush out and kickflip to the nearest railing, and I’ve made it through a decade’s worth of Grand Theft Autos without punching a single prostitute. But all cooking games seem to do is make me hungry. Not “I had a big lunch but I guess I could have a salad” hungry. The real deal: full-bore, lip-smacking, “look at your companion and suddenly imagine them as a T-bone steak” hungry. But it was Cooking Mama or nothing. We figured we were in no spot to complain.

This is life lesson No. 2: The only thing worse than cold, tired and bored is cold, tired and hungry.

We spent hours whipping up exotic dishes in game. Squid fried soba. Loco moco. Keema curry and chapatti. Mama’s sparkling kitchen, chock-full of fresh ingredients, seemed infinitely removed from our dark, dank, private little slumhole. Each recipe seemed to taunt us further. Why, yes! Sea bream carpaccio would be good right now! And we’ll make sure to save room for that sliced burdock root.

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There we were, drooling over dishes we’d never tasted and craving flavors we didn’t know existed. I looked at Colleen. Colleen looked at me. We had arrived at the same idea – the same terrible, awful, cockamamie idea: We needed to eat this food, right now, no matter what.

We scratched out a game plan: We would unpack only our pots, pans and utensils. There was an Asian grocer just down the street for the ingredients. The kitchen was a complete write-off – neither the stove nor the sink worked at all – but we could jury rig a George Foreman grill and hot plate in the middle of the living room and fill out pots from the bathroom faucets. We had no phone, no internet, no cookbooks, no training … but we did have Cooking Mama and a ferocious appetite.

We arrived at the grocer and started grabbing anything that looked delicious: all types of fruit and vegetables, packets of noodles, various sauces. Two types of flour. Three types of rice. In a freezer in the back, all their meats and seafood were sealed in plastic wrap. I filled two baskets worth. We might have been lacking even the most basic amenities, but we wouldn’t be wanting for squid, crab and eel.

Arriving home, we found setup to be the most laborious phase of our plan. Every inch of the living room had to be swept, scoured and sanitized. Our boxes were stacked and restacked to make enough elbow room to work our magic. We filled garbage bags with broken glass and bric-a-brac and tossed them one by one into the gaping maw that was supposed to be our attic. After the blitz our hands were raw from scrubbing and our joints ached, but we had finally clawed a tiny scrap of tidiness out of the filth. We had done our part. The rest was up to Mama.

Each of Mama’s recipes left a lot of guesswork; though she was all smiles in the kitchen, we knew there was a secret or two she kept hidden up her sleeve. How, from those random assortments of chopped ingredients, did she manage to produce something recognizable as food? We filled in the gaps as best we could. Colleen whipped together a dough and hand-rolled pasta for gyoza. I got to work on the squid-fried rice. Under Mama’s expert tutelage, I knew that for this recipe, the squid does not go in the rice; rather, the rice goes in the squid. But what I didn’t know was how visceral it feels to jam your hand inside its hollow body. It’s one thing to neatly slice and peel with a tap, tap, tap of your stylus. It’s another thing to find yourself fist-deep in raw cephalopod.

A friend of mine, an accomplished chef, describes cooking as alchemy: You combine mundane items and produce something wondrous, a whole greater than its parts. But what we did that night was closer to necromancy. The room filled with smoke and steam. Pots bubbled wildly, and pungent sauces sizzled in pans. Dishes were conjured forth that were never meant to be.

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One major difference from cooking in game and in life is that, under Mama’s watch, things can never fly off the handle. You can burn the roast or spill the soup, but Mama is always there to “make it better.” Left to our devices, things got quickly out of hand. The potstickers got potstuck. The miso soup roiled menacingly like a witch’s brew. And my hand-crammed squid looked like a Lovecraftian horror. For a moment, surrounded by pots and pans full of three meals worth of mystery food, it seemed like we had put an enormous amount of time and energy into trading one kind of mess for another. Numb from all the effort, we filled our plates and sat down to eat.

We hardly had room to move, surrounded by piles of dishes. I just sat there staring, not knowing what to try first. After all that effort, we could hardly find the heart to actually eat any of our concoctions. Finally, Colleen picked up a dumpling with her chopsticks, dabbed it in soy sauce and popped it in her mouth. Her expression changed. Her cheeks turned color. Tears ran down her face. “How …” she says.

“How can it be this good?”

Maybe it was the strain and fatigue that made the food that extra bit satisfying. Maybe it was the relief of having one good thing come out of our rotten first day in town. But for whatever reason, the food was good. It was great. It was just as good as Mama’s. Sitting there with our meals, we forgot about our lousy apartment full of broken windows and rotten wood. We forgot about our lying, gutless yellow-bellied sack of a landlord. We even forgot how miserable tomorrow’s dishes would be.

The full title of Cooking Mama 2 is Dinner with Friends. And maybe that’s life lesson No. 3: Cooking, like most other things in life, is a messy business. You can get it wrong, and you can get burned. But no matter how far gone you are, no matter how badly you screw things up, things always seem brighter over good food and good company. And that night, I was blessed to have both.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where every section of the supermarket is the frozen food aisle. When not preparing culinary masterpieces, he cooks up reviews at www.kingandrook.com.

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