Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why I Cook

Cooking begins with hunger...

I typed the above words three days ago, and then I minimized this window. Every time I came to the computer, I looked at those words and then minimized the window again. Too busy cooking to write about it.

But so, cooking begins with hunger, but it doesn't end there. I began to cook seriously as a result of a huge shift in my self-understanding when I was pregnant with my first child. This shift was dramatic and multi-layered, but at first I only experienced the drama. I found that I could not eat the same food twice. Once I'd had a meal, the thought of that particular flavor combination made me sick. By the end of two weeks of this, I had exhausted my repertoire of recipes, and I began to order carry out. This solution was a stop-gap measure, at best. The budget wasn't bottomless, and neither were the menus of our local restaurants. Soon all our paper take-out menus were annotated in my handwriting with comments beside different items that read, "yuck," "superyuck," "abominably yucky." It was time to hit the cookbooks. What I sought most were recipes that used ingredients that I'd never tried before. In those months, I tried mustard greens, broccoli rabe, radicchio, arugula, celery root, Belgian and curly endive, white peaches, and fresh fennel for the first time. It wasn't that I couldn't eat celery root twice, but if I had it once in a gratin with new potatoes and gruyere, then the next time I would have to prepare it with tomatoes and garlic. But new factors entered into this particular drama that could not be explained by the problem of nausea. For instance, it seemed that I enjoyed making fresh pasta, and this enjoyment had nothing to do with the experience of eating it when it was done. I simply received great pleasure in the give and take of the dough, the dust of flour on my fingers, the golden color that the egg yolk imparted to the flour and water mixture, the fruity smell of the olive oil. What I loved most were the various new ways in which my hands were learning to move. First pressing into the elastic mass with the heels of my hands, then gathering the edges up in my fingertips and pulling them to incorporate them back into the ball, sliding the strips of dough between the rollers of the pasta machine, turning the crank, and pulling out the long, smooth tongue of soft pasta, using the pads of my fingers so as not to create dents. Being able to detect changes in temperature in the steam that rose to my face, or feeling a sauce thicken through the handle of a wooden spoon, or discovering exactly how to hold the knife in order to take the yellow off the peel of a lemon and leave the bitter white pith behind -- these all gave a particular sensation of happiness that surprised me. Then one day, when I had seven pounds of peaches to peel and slice, I could not ignore the complete astonishment I felt as I picked up the first peach, feeling its warm, soft weight in my palm, slipped the tip of my paring knife under the fuzzy layer of skin, and began slowly working the blade in a spiral around the fruit. Thick, pale orange juice oozed between my palm and the fruit, and I stood with my hands over the sink, smelling the warm peach that sat wet and slippery in my fist, and I almost blushed, the pleasure was so acute. How many times had I peeled peaches in the past? It was always a chore to complete, a job for the lowly kitchen helper, but here I was, discovering for the first time in my life, a secret that no one had tried to hide from me. Peeling and slicing peaches was one of the sweetest pleasures given to humanity. From this new insight, I began to be able to see the pleasure in less intuitively positive kitchen experiences -- handling raw meat, the scent of crushed garlic in the pores of my skin, or stripping the tiny leaves from a sprig of thyme.
It took some deep pondering for me to understand finally that my hands enjoyed working just as much as my mind did, and I began to be conscious of all the various ways that my hands keep themselves occupied throughout the day.
After my daughter was born, my hands were pretty content just to be touching her, patting her, fiddling with tiny buttons, rearranging wisps of hair, rubbing the soles of her feet with my thumbs, and the pleasures of food took a back seat to these new found delights.
During my second pregnancy, though, my love for food was reawakened. This time, however, it manifested in a new way that I can only characterize as a passion for excellence. I bought an oven thermometer and would shift it to different positions within my oven so that I could know the precise temperature in every particular corner of it. Not content to measure dry ingredients precisely by the dip-level-pour method, I began to use a kitchen scale to weigh everything and standardize my recipes. I would make the same recipe several times in a row, altering quantities or techniques each time, in order to find the perfect combination. It was during this period that I came up with a recipe for the perfect chocolate cake. This new passion also required that I make new friends who would receive the many cakes that flew from my kitchen. I began to think in advance of who would receive the cake I was about to make, and then all the pleasures, both sensual and mathematical, would be dedicated to the person who would be receiving the final product.
I also began to plan meals and menus particularly suited to the persons I had invited to enjoy them. I would collect details, likes and dislikes, combinations of flavors, favorite restaurants and cuisines, about each of my friends, so that when I served them, the meal would perhaps tell them a story about themselves -- or even better, about us. I even began to acquire enough skill in the kitchen to be able to tell subtle jokes with the food, communicate ideas, and even bring about reconciliations that had been impossible with mere verbal methods. Cooking was like a prayer, or a simple piece of music, or one of the best conversations.
During my third pregnancy, my grandmother died. All the cousins paid a visit to her house to choose an object that had special meaning for them. I wanted to take her huge gas stove, but I had no room for it in my suitcase, so I chose the white milk glass salt and pepper shakers. They were each still half full. When I got back home, I filled both to the top and then resolved never to let either empty completely. That way, there would always be a trace of Grandma's salt in what I ate.
I had a recipe for Italian Anise bread I'd been making for a little over a year, and it produces a nut colored, braided loaf studded with golden raisins with a faint scent of licorice. That Christmas, I decided to make enough loaves to give one to each of my friends. However, by loaves eleven and twelve I was very discouraged. Like numbers one through ten, they were destined never to be eaten. For some reason, my dough would not rise, and I produced, instead of bread, small, braided nut colored bricks. I began to plan construction of a garden wall by Easter, by which point I thought I'd have all the bricks I'd need.
I tinkered with every aspect of the recipe, measuring the temperature of the liquid with a thermometer, adding ingredients in different order, switching yeast, kneading first by hand and then with the mixer. For all the variation, the loaves came out identical to one another.
Grandma's idea of a recipe was never more precise than, "Well, you take your onions and you cook them in a little oil..." Measurements were in handfuls, fist-sized bunches, little fingers, ladles. She also believed in ghosts.
I didn't want to admit that I thought the bread was haunted. Of course, Grandma would have said it was. And if I could have her here now, telling the story of the year I couldn't make the bread rise to save my soul, she'd have me believing in portents and signs and laughing at the small and large ironies of life until she'd brought enough leavening to raise the roof.
So, if during my first pregnancy I learned to communicate with myself through food, and during the second I learned to communicate with others, during the third pregnancy I learned to use food to communicate, even with the dead.

Originally published 11/24/07


clairity said...

This is a wonderful and human story!

Marie said...

Have you by chance ever seen the Japanese movie "Tampopo"? You might enjoy it. It's a comedy, really a rather bizzare movie, sort of a meditation on the role of food and cooking in the Japanese psyche.

By the way, reading this post made me hungry!

Justine said...

Food, and laughs--my favorite kind of writing!

Absolutely lovely work, Suzanne!

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."