My mum is an incredible cook. Just incredible. Her hands are a blur in the kitchen, deftly chopping, peeling, frying and filleting. It’s like watching Data calmly lock out a Borg override of the Enterprise’s controls. Just as Data’s face doesn’t betray how singularly screwed they’d be if he blinked, mum’s face doesn’t betray just how monumentally bad things would taste if she dropped the ball. She’s a maestro. Always has been.
Though to be fair, if mum burnt the salmon steak, we’d have indigestion. If Data fumbled an algorithm, we’d all be Borg now. The steaks – or stakes – aren’t quite the same.
I, however, couldn’t do it. I was a quiet, weird teenager who loved food, but couldn’t connect with the act of making it. All I cared about were my books, my friends… and Star Trek. And because I wasn’t the most stereotypically masculine kid, I decided that if I was going to measure up as an adult I had to be Riker. Will Riker. Beard? Check. Swagger? Check. Trombone? Check.
I even learned to play the trombone in high school because I wanted to be more like Will Riker. In the hands of Will Riker, the trombone is a work of art. In the hands of teenage me, it could be used as a punishment for shoplifting in some countries. Jonathan Frakes, if you’re reading this: I love you, and you have a lot to answer for.
Then, something miraculous happened. I finished high school, moved out of home, and went to university. And during a particularly depressing stint of shared house living, neck-deep in a Trek re-watch I decided to start cooking, using Star Trek’s culinary delights as inspiration. If I was addled enough to model myself on Riker, why not teach myself to cook using the gastronomical wonders of Star Trek as my cookbook?
First up was Hasperat. DS9 being my favourite of all the Trek universes, I naturally wanted to turn out some legit Bajoran cuisine. As near as I could tell, Hasperat was basically an unspeakable briny something wrapped in a burrito. Seeing as how I was living near Koreatown, I went down to my local Korean supermarket, struck up a really weird conversation with the clerk, and tried to describe what I was looking for.
"Ro Laren," I found myself explaining to the thoroughly confused man at the counter. "Fish roe?" he said, sweat beading understandably on his face. Things were going badly. Then, I explained the flavor profile, he clapped his hands together, and took me over to the fridge. He handed me a jar of kimchi, and then helped me through an approximation of the recipe.
That night, I laid out a flatbread, fried it until little brown bubbles formed on the surface, and set it aside. I gingerly placed some poached chicken down the middle, a smear of kewpie mayo, some cilantro, bamboo shoots, and finally, the kimchi. Lots of kimchi. See, I’d never had kimchi before, and I really ought to have scaled back a bit. But I was doing it. I was cooking. I rolled it up, took a bite, and wham! I was transported to the promenade on Deep Space Nine, the jangle and clink of Quark’s acerbic yet alluring Dabo machines drifting down to reach me. The flavors zipped into my sinuses and slapped my brain clean out the back of my head. I ricocheted back to my dinky little kitchen, and I finally realized why Bajoran’s noses were permanently scrunched up.
From there, my love of cooking exploded.
I called mum up, and told her what I’d done. “Why do you sound so congested?” she asked. "Hasperat,” I gurgled, eyes still burning. She came over, and we set about cobbling together a roster of dishes. She taught me how to chop, how to dice, how to peel, and watched as I clumsily followed her instructions. We turned spring onions, garlic, red peppers, jalapenos and fresh tomatoes into a pretty killer Plomeek soup. Mum sat there with me, patiently watching footage of McCoy sniffing the Vulcan delicacy as his eyes widened. She scribbled down a raft of notes, and an hour later we did our best McCoy impression as we lifted the lid. Mum took a hearty sniff and looked at me. “Oh!”, she said, eyebrow raised. “Vulcan Plomeek soup! And I’ll bet you made it, too.”
From there, we went a bit mad. I showed mum Romulan mollusks, and one trip to the fish market later, we’d made oysters Kilpatrick, eating them with a side of ale (regular, not Romulan). I showed her Jumja sticks, and she taught me how to make maple syrup flavored caramel (which I burned, horribly). I explained to her the dizzying delights of Klingon cooking, and my lifelong desire to try Rokeg Blood Pie. We never made that one, but we did spend a very weird hour calling butchers asking if they sold and high-quality blood. To this day, there are five butcher shops in our area who still won’t serve us.
Within the year, I was cooking on my own. Star Trek had done it. And as I cooked, I realized that I’d done what most teenagers did – I’d treated my mum like a replicator for years. I told her what I wanted to eat, and it just sort of… appeared. I’d “Earl Grey. Hot”-ed my way through life. But now, I didn’t need the replicator anymore.
I still call up Mum and share recipes, and still send her photos of dishes I’ve cooked. Last year, I took my wife, Tegan, to Sydney for work, and as we all sat in my parent’s apartment, I cooked for the group. I caught my reflection in a mirror. I suddenly realized, six foot two and bearded, that maybe I had a little more Will Riker in me than I thought.
And then, in the middle of Star Trek: Picard, there he was. Will Riker. Beaming at his captain, married, happy. And cooking. Cooking a bunnicorn wood-fired pizza for his loved ones.
So yes, Star Trek taught me to cook. But if I ever lay hands on a trombone again, it’ll be fifty billion years too soon.
Paul Verhoeven (he/him) is a writer and comedian, and his book Loose Units is out through Penguin Publishing. He hosts Steam Punks on the ABC, hosts the Loose Units spin-off podcast, and his second book, Electric Blue, is out through Penguin Publishing later in 2020.