How I Learned to Cook

Five questions for Juana Medina, one of our favorite illustrators

Today’s “How I Learned To Cook” is a special one, as we’re featuring the talented illustrator Juana Medina (Instagram / website), who created our beautiful Bittman Project logo. I was touched by Juana’s candor and eloquence in her responses, and I’m betting you will be, too.

First, please tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Juana. I am an author and illustrator of children’s books. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia and emigrated to the U.S. in my early 20s. By now, I have lived one half of my life in Colombia and the other half in America (with a small hiatus in Mexico), and these places have shaped me in significant — and very different — ways. I share my life with my incredibly patient and loving wife, our twin sons, and a dog obsessed with squirrels.

How did you eat growing up?

Colombia’s geographic diversity allows for many tropical fruits to be grown with ease. From very early on, I enjoyed ripe and fresh fruits in abundance. My mom has always loved vegetables, ensuring these were never in short supply at home ... to the point that my sister protested that our skin would turn green from all the vegetables we were served as part of our meals. While kids around me were loving pizza and hot dogs, my favorite food was Brussels sprouts.

Despite all this, I have always had a complicated relationship with food: From a very early age, I've coped with trauma (I'll save that chapter for another time) by eating, and since the age of five I have endured strict diets. So, to make a long story short, many of my mom's best intentions on maintaining healthy and balanced nutrition backfired in extraordinary ways. Learning to not eat my feelings has been a hard lesson to interiorize.

How old were you when you learned how to cook? Why’d you start?

My mom enjoyed cooking very much. Also, Elena, a wise and gentle woman who helped raise me and who cooked for my family, would spend hours in the kitchen, making vegetable soups, per my mom's request, while secretly frying plantain chips for me. (Talk about diets backfiring!) The two would often have me wash, chop, stir, etc. while keeping them company. I wish I would have been more curious about their cooking, but alas, my mind was stuck in the stories I heard in the kitchen or playing with peels and dough to make sculptures. Needless to say, when it comes to my cooking skills, there’s much room for improvement. 

What's your favorite thing to make?

My favorite thing to make is arepas. These cornmeal patties are a staple of a Colombian diet. I seldom make them, but every now and then one of my sons will ask if I can make some for breakfast. Given my awful reputation in the kitchen front (I’m still relegated to chopping and washing, which I do extraordinarily well by now), I’m always flattered when asked to make arepas.

Is there something you can never seem to get right?

Um, that would be cooking. 

What advice can you offer your fellow cooks?

Take time to admire textures, colors, scents ... all that food has to offer (besides flavor, of course). And goodness gracious, we MUST stop wasting food!