Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why cook?

Friends of my parents often look at me in astonishment when I tell them I cook for myself. "My child only knows how to make instant noodles." "I don't even cook when my husband is out of town...I just boil some dumplings." I admit to days when all I can manage is a bowl of instant noodles. (Even then I have to make my own modifications - throw out the freeze-dried vegetables, ugh, rinse the noodles with hot water so they're not as salty, add a beaten egg). Sometimes I make pancakes or french toast - when I was in high school and my parents were out to dinner, I'd make these rare treats, drowning everything in a sea of maple syrup. But usually I make some effort. Rice, some kind of vegetable, sauteed or roasted or stir-fried, a piece of fish or steak or chicken, pork braised with soy sauce, wine, vinegar, sugar, a little garlic and ginger. Sometimes pasta, tossed together with stir-fried vegetable or layered in small casseroles and baked. It only takes a little time and effort. Leftovers are for lunch the next day, or dinner, so I only need to cook every other day. Co-workers look at me incredulously. "You make your own chicken teriyaki?" "It's no trouble," I say. "You get the hang of de-boning the chicken thighs." I get a snort of disbelief in reply. Some things I have cooked so many times I don't need a recipe, measure ingredients, follow directions. Or I make things up as I go.

Things taste better when you cook them yourself. You can adjust things to how you like them, add extra cheese, cut back on sugar. Experiment with whatever takes your fancy. I love finding recipes, from books, magazines, on the internet. When I cook alone I can try things before making them for other people, test things that no one else will eat. I love restaurants, but there is something about starting with a pile of ingredients, a run around the grocery store with a list a mile long, or just finding something interesting at the farmer's market, and creating a dish, either of your own invention or a recipe you've always wanted to try.

Food has been an important part of my life for longer than I can remember. It makes a difference that both my parents appreciate food, and will eat almost anything (aside from a few allergies). I was made to at least try everything on the table, even if I couldn't bring myself to finish it. My cousin likes to tell me how I, when I was five, struggled to eat a bowl of soup that contained wood ears, a kind of mushroom, before I was allowed to have a piece of candy (strictly rationed by my parents). Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I turned to her with a face full of misery and said, "It's just not worth it." I have other phobias, too, but they are few and far between, thanks to parents who made me eat everything. If you try everything at least once, you may surprise yourself by actually liking it. And we cook together. All the time. It is something we do, as a family, gather together at the kitchen table for dinner, no matter how busy we are. In middle school my friends and I often cooked together (see the post about crêpes), and even though the friends have changed, we still do. Cooking was something you did with love, for the people you love, with the people you love. Food is love, for me. It is how I express my feelings for the people I care about. I don't say, "I love you," I say, "Have you eaten yet?" or "Have some more."

My reality is that it is important to cook, even when it's just for me. I love the tactile pleasure of it, the rythm of chopping ingredients, the feel of the knife in my hand as it slides through vegetables, the anticipation of things cooking, flavors coming together. I love the sounds of cooking, the snick-snick-snick of the gas burners, the sizzle of food hitting hot oil, and the smell of food filling the air. I love having people come in the door, sniffing in anticipation. "I could smell the turkey from the sidewalk," they tell me. "Smells good," my friends say as they walk in, shedding coats and shoes, into the kitchen filled with the spicy warmth of lasagne, mingled with the perfume of chocolate as the brownies finish baking. My family lives in another country, and we see each other only every few months at most. But when they are here, we cook together. That dance around the kitchen as we pass ingredients, trade utensils, move aside so someone can have their chance at the cutting board, checking on pots simmering on the stove or things baking in the oven, tasting as we go. Everyone's home again.

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