Last month, Michael Rulhman asked the world, “Why do you cook?”.
Before figuring out why we cook, I think it’s worth examining our relationship with food – the two are quite related.
Now I’m not sure what constitutes a “normal” relationship with food, but as time has gone by I am getting the impression that having a relationship with food at all is becoming more and more scarce. I just got done watching Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food … and was blown away at how many people in our society have no idea what food is, and the negative impact that results. I literally cannot imagine what life would be like without such a relationship, and it is so disheartening to think that some people will grow up and never know what food really is, or take joy in even the simplest of pleasures like biting into a fresh juicy strawberry that was freshly picked that morning. After watching that, I feel now like I am trying to preserve some lost art in my daily act of cooking food. Through every crack of an egg, every stew happily bubbling away, every soft peel of an apple, I acknowledge that my life is linked to the food I eat, and I think how we prepare our food can be quite revealing about exactly what that relationship is.
The art – or is it science? I never can tell – no, it’s the magic – the magic of cooking is that one can start with basic and humble, yet very real ingredients, and somehow transform into an entity capable of invoking joy, laughter, or tears – maybe all three even. The process alone is a series of little miracles that I never tire of witnessing. Even creating a delicate little cookie can bring me to my knees, and when I step back and think about it, it’s incredible really. Who first figured out that egg whites, when prepped and baked with care, made such delectable little creatures? What was it like to be in that chef’s kitchen the first time he/she saw feet grow out from the little almond disks? Did they also scream and giggle with joy like a six year old, dancing around the room and hugging everyone around (because that surely was me)? And did they discover the same lessons of patience and resolve as I did when attempting to make mine? Maybe I’m a bit unique here, but I always feel a child-like sense of wonder when I get to be lucky enough to make such little miracles come into reality.
You see, for me, cooking is not just about filling a plate with enough calories to last until the next meal. Each food has a story, a story that probably started long before you or me, and one which continues, ever evolving each time it is made and shared with family or friends. Cooking allows that story to continue and grow. It does not have to be fancy, but what we cook and serve to others is an extension of ourselves. I try put my heart into my food as much as any lovestruck soul pours out their confessions to their beloved in a loveletter. I think my husband sees that. He sure knows I’m not the romantic type to wish for roses or diamonds – ha I’m way to practical for that – but we pride ourselves on the fact that it is the little things, found in the everyday routines of our lives, where we most show our love to each other. The way of preparing food is a very personal act, and one that is a reflection of and an extension of our own identities, emotions, and aspirations. What we cook and how we chose to cook it is defined by our past experiences, our hopes and desires, where we came from and what we learned along the way. Anyone who tells you that cooking is not a personal journey is deeply mistaken. Through cooking, I have learned how to find myself.
I believe our relationship with food is not just personal but also collective – because food is one of the major defining aspects of a culture – not just what is eaten, but how – during which occasions, how it is prepped, with whom it is shared, and what traditions come attached. Food is so engrained in the human way of life that even simple things like the thought of fresh apple pie conjures up myriad memories – the first that come to mind are family dinners when I was a kid – I think of my dad trying to keep the beautiful white crisp Cortlands from being gobbled up by all of us before he had the chance to nestle the slices into his pie (what can I say, Cortlands are my favorite!); then I envision my grandmother trying to discreetly sneak the puppy scraps under the table (though I saw anyways, I wasn’t going to tell), and instantly wish she were still here so that we could crack silly jokes together that no one else understands – and then I was always laughing at my younger sister who insisted on putting ranch dressing on top of everything she ate, including the turkey. Ha I never could stand ranch dressing – but for some reason I’ve been craving it ever since I moved overseas, I think because I miss being able to talk with her whenever I want, even if it’s just about stupid stuff. How does that entire flood of emotions and memories, which invariably link to other feelings and experiences in my life, come from one silly little thought of a pie? It’s because the food we make is inextricably tied to the memories surrounding it. No matter what, food will always create strong connections. When we make and share food with others, we are not just sharing what is on the plate. We are sharing ourselves, and transforming each other.
So why do I cook? I cook to eat, I cook to love, I cook to share, to have fun, to remember, to learn, to see, and to create. Even when we realize exactly what it means to be an ocean away from so many treasured friends and family, we cook and recreate just a little bit of “home”, a little compass to guide us when the two of us are feeling very much alone.
So I cook. I will keep cooking. For we are not just about looking back in the past, but looking forward as well. We will make new friends, create new memories, and continue to share with each other – and chances are, cooking will be involved and our lives will continue to be enriched by this fantastic opportunity that we have being here.