Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I Cook: An Exploration ...

So, I just read a post that presented an argument for never cooking again, titled "An Argument for Never Cooking Again," and the most prominent thought I had while reading it was:

"I wonder how bitchy this woman could be if she tried."

Because she's plenty bitchy in an effortless sort of way. Or maybe she really was working at it. Or maybe she was trying so hard to be offensively clever (in the moment when she referred to her awful carrot pasta sauce as "goldfish cum") that she didn't realize her bitchiness but by God, she really, really, really wants you to know that she can make a fig galette.

Or maybe she was just tired. "Cutting up the vegetables took hours and pieces of them kept falling on the floor. The garbage can had been put outside because of an ant problem, so over the course of an hour I probably walked about a mile and a half throwing out vegetable scraps," she wrote.

To which my brain responded, "Right, because you couldn't possibly make a pile of scraps and throw them out all at once."

Who the fuck makes individual trips to the trash, wherever it may be, to throw out individual scraps?

I'm no fan of Rachael Ray but hey, the garbage bowl is a good idea.

ANYWAY ... .

I live alone. There are days I do not wish to cook. Because I don't have to. I don't have a child to feed or a husband to feed. Hell, I don't even have a dog to feed. So if I don't feel like cooking – as I didn't last night – and I cannot for the life of me figure out what I want to eat – as I couldn't last night – and if I drive around past every possible fast-food / take-out option yet can think of nothing that appeals to me – as I did last night – sometimes, I just don't eat.

Or I have some cheese.

But then there are days when I want to cook. The weather is turning cooler. The leaves are falling. Soup might be nice. Or chili. Or stew.

And yes, there are people in the world who will make soup or stew or chili for me and I could pay them instead, but there are days when I want to cook. Not because I'm out to impress anyone but because, well, first and foremost, food is what helps us to stay alive.

I was thinking the other day, as I was baking cookies, about how long I've been baking, about when I first started making what: My Aunt Anne taugh me how to bake bread when I was 8. I'm not sure when I made my first solo pan of brownies but I feel like I was around 10. Mom liked the idea of baking cookies for us but she really hated the portioning of the dough and the waiting through the multiple rounds of baking cookies one tray at a time, so she mixed the cookie dough and I did the portioning and baking, a nice division of labor.

I absolutely come from a family to whom box mixes were and are anathema. Just the other day, I clicked through to a recipe, saw that the first ingredient was yellow cake mix, and closed the window.

Mixes irk me. For the most part, they're just the dry ingredients of a recipe. Is it really too much trouble to measure out a teaspoon of baking soda on your own? Does someone really have to do that for you?

Many years ago, I had dinner at a friend's grandmother's house. I had asked what I could bring. I was given a simple assignment: salad. But, for the friend, it wasn't about the salad. It was about the gobsmackingly delicious garlic dressing that my parents used to buy from a restaurant in South Chicago. But I prepped all the indredients and put them into plastic bags and tossed everything together at the grandmother's house.

And I remember someone making some reference to me being a gourmet chef.

Heh. No. I am not a gourmet chef.

I once considered becoming a chef. Being a chef is hard. And, for me, would not be fun.

But I do have friends over for dinner from time to time.

And I like cooking for them, for us.

I do not strive to impress them. If they're impressed, that's nice. But I don't consult multiple cookbooks and devise menus that will require hours upon hours of prep.

Sometimes, I put in some effort (read: lasagna) and sometimes, I don't (read: the day my friend Dave and I decided to get together for dinner late in the day and I ended up making roasted shrimp and roasted asparagus; sticking two trays of food into an oven hardly qualifies as work).

But here's the key: If people enjoy what I prepare for them, it's because I prepared it for them with love.

Yes, I have a baseline level of knowledge about food, because I've been cooking for most of my life. And maybe I have slightly more of a knack for it than others do. (Once upon a time, Mom made chicken tetrazzini, the sauce for which is a doctored-up bechamel. One of my distant cousins asked Mom, of the sauce, "Do you saute it?" So, yes, I know more than her. I know that just because "sauce" and "saute" vary only by one letter, they are not foodstuff and method, respectively). But I just cook. Mom just cooks. She's had people in her church mention that they're loathe to cook for her (like when she and my father were recuperating after concurrent hospital stays) because they're embarrassed by what they'd be able to offer, given her food renown. That makes her sad. She told one woman that she'd be happy with a PB&J.

Intent means a lot. A PB&J made with love is delicious, just as a fistful of dandelions from a little hand are the most beautiful flowers in the world.

And, also, if you're fortunate enough to have other people in your life who love to cook or bake, spending time with them in the kitchen fortifies the soul. Every year, Mom and I make ridiculous quantities of sauce out of roma tomatoes and onions and garlic and mushrooms and wine. And it's delicious. But it's really not the sauce that matters. It's the tradition. By the time the marathon is over, my back aches from standing too long on the tile floor, but I love those hours that we spend in the kitchen, chopping and stirring and chatting.

A winter or two ago, I made bread, and as the loaves were finishing their rise, I called Mom and asked her if she wanted to come by while the bread baked. We sat in the living room as the daylight waned and chatted and inhaled the aroma of the baking bread. It doesn't get much better than that.

So, yes, some people can surely rely on other people to prepare their food for the rest of their lives. (Whether they can afford it may be another story.) But food is not a foe. There are reasons to cook other than attempts to impress your friends. In fact, that may be the worst reason that exists. Cook because you love them. Cook because you want to spend time with them. Cook because it makes you happy, helps you focus, melts away the frustration of a crappy day.

Keep it simple. Be generous with the love and care. Light a candle or two. Odds are, you won't regret it.

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