Lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook.
One week ago, I was waiting for a streetcar on Dundas West on what was surely the coldest and windiest Toronto night this winter. Meredith and I had enjoyed dinner at Cafe 668. She said seemingly out of nowhere, I want to come over and watch you cook one of these days. At the time I thought it was just the funniest statement I’d ever heard. We agreed to a Saturday in the kitchen sometime soon.
But lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook. And what Mere said actually makes a lot of sense in this context. We each hold the same wooden spoon differently. Cooking teaches other people things besides how we form or follow a recipe – about who we are, and also about who they are.
I’m one of those funny personalities who is seduced equally by the tangible and the ephemeral, the scientific and the creative, reality and the clouds. Really: I don’t see these as dichotomies at all. Cooking, more than most things, brings my world of contrast-but-not-really to one safe place. There’s a line I like by British author Jeanette Winterson: Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough. The basic, sturdy comfort of a knife shifts my mind out from reality ever-so-slightly as I methodically slice. There are moments: facing an intimidating green wall of lettuces and kale-bunches, rinsing carrots and hearing the whoosh of my knife through their spines, ladling soup into a sturdy bowl. These pull my pin.
Cooking also uses a part of my mind that yanked me – quite suddenly – from science to political theory. Theorists discuss lofty things in abstract terms, but most arguments root in a few key themes: the good, justice, fairness, equality. Call my comparison a stretch, but I think cooking does the same basic thing. While it takes an analytical bent and well-used palate to figure out why certain things taste good together, ultimately food is grounded in fundamentals: how do sweet, salty, bitter and sour relate in a dish? Then we layer on other questions. Should textures complement one-another or contrast? Hot or cold, satiating or refreshing? Weight, size, shape, texture, aroma, mouth-feel. The variables at play in a dish – before we even include taste buds – can make the head swim, if I bring them to the front of my mind.
But I don’t break out a matrix and calculator to make multiple permutations of pasta sauce. Mostly I just think about what I want to cook, what I have to work with, and I gather some ingredients and a rough method in my head. I stir and taste and add and stir some more until the dish in my mind and the dish in front of me match up. Everything in the previous paragraph is at work, subconsciously, in cooking, though I rarely entertain it.
I can’t discount the emotional and subjective parts of cooking and eating and feeding one-another that make it so right. To prepare a meal for another is to care for that person. There’s no better feeling than contented sighs of pleasure from someone you’ve fed, of being asked to please pass the salt. I say it so often: I find community in breaking bread and sharing my table. One day (not today, but one day) I’ll tell you the story of a little girl who saw a hog slaughtered in a dusty-hot island village. I’ll tell you about how her reaction splintered a narrative that has little to do with food and everything to do with history and family. Saying I will not eat this has initiated some difficult conversations about far more than consumption.
Why I love to cook is all these things. The theory but the tangibleness, the figuring out of up-in-my-head things by proxy of sight, taste and smell. The stories it welcomes. In my mind, when I hand each of you a pan, a wooden spoon, a tomato and some salt, the experiences and results are wild and varied. Between us, we have so many recipes.
[photo, with thanks, via]