"Here's my attempt to start a meme: how did you learn to cook? Who taught you? Did you teach yourself? Are you a good cook? Do you like to cook, or is it a horrible chore for you? Do you cook best in your own ethnicity, or another popular style? What's the worst or best thing you've ever cooked?"
I was born a cook. If anyone ever looked at my preschool mudpies, with tons of garden-simulated ingredients (rocks for nuts, calla lily spadixes for carrots, etc.) they'd know it. I followed everyone into kitchens, taking notes. I have fond memories of being 4 or 5, playing in the kitchen of the Cairo Cafe in San Francisco, which was run by my mother's/brother's Armenian friends. I don't even have to close my eyes to smell the wonderful spices...
My mother went on a healthfood kick when I was 10, and started a regimen of fruit smoothies with wheat germ, and boiled soy nuts. My father, fed up with health food and sensing potential, gave me a copy of the Wise Cooking Encyclopedia that had belonged to his first wife, and I read it cover-to-cover. (My father could burn water, but he appreciated good food and wine, while my mother's recipes were more out of the "White Trash Cooking" cookbook style. When Father took us to dinner, it was always to eat only the best food imaginable.) When his cousin Lilian came to live with us for 6 months, I watched how she cooked, and developed a passion for her homemade pineapple sherbet. I was in heaven the first time mother couldn't cope with cooking dinner, handed me a cookbook, and said "Fix something for your father."
I planted herbs to use with various recipes. When the folks would leave me at home for a week or two at a time in my later couple years of high school (long story), I would cook with forbidden ingredients like onions and lemons. (My mother hated onions, and was allergic to citrus.) My first act on moving out of home in college was to buy lemons, onions, and garlic!
In college, I started feeding all my friends, and it was common for large numbers of the computer geek crowd to all meet at Jane's place for a major feed. That's when I became fascinated with historical food and recipes, too. The summer after my mom died, my boyfriend and I lived with my father for the summer, and I created exquisite creations every night. I even did beef wellington! My father was thrilled. He, in turn, introduced me to Thai food, and Hunan Chinese food, and I found out about his secret life as a gourmet that my mother never knew about, where he was welcomed by name at gourmet restaurants all over Los Angeles. Madame Wu even personally inscribed a copy of her cookbook to me. (Needless to say, my mother would have been appalled by most of this food. It was too foreign to her palate, and definitely not health-food.)In college, I worked in various food establishments on campus, and lastly in the kitchen of a local hospital. I learned to appreciate institutional appliances and be appalled by institutional food. ;-) Oh yes, and I ended up doing a major concentration in historical ethnobotany, and my thesis on seaweed as a food. (The worst stuff I ever made was deep-fried kelp, which had an acrid quality of too-concentrated minerals that shriveled your mouth.)
When I took up Living History as a hobby, the food was a major interest, and one folks could universally relate to. I, along with my late friend Lia, set up first the baking, and then the cooking demos, at Sutters Fort. In the course of this, I got to make crullers for the Queen of England and Court, when they toured Sutters Fort in 1983. But then I discovered the Californio era, and the foods of pre-1850 California have been a passion ever since. This has also fed into the quest for ever better tamales, which still continues.
I must be a good cook, as people will drop everything to come get something I've made to eat, and I've also gotten some nifty gifts that way, ranging from woodenware to custom-made iron tools. ;-)