Why We Cook
The Inspirations and Comforts of Home Cooking
The last few weeks have been particularly difficult. It's been a time of personal loss made more complicated as several other friends have been either ill or recovering from really terrible accidents. I think the word that best describes how I've been feeling is vulnerable.
I remember in the weeks that followed 9/11, another time of loss that was both horrific and personal, the same tenderness, fear and vulnerability hung over my days. Then, as now, I headed to the kitchen. A month or so later a fresh issue of Gourmet arrived and in Ruth Reichl's editor's letter she wrote how in the days after 9/11 she had made countless coffee cakes -- over and over again, always the same recipe. Around that same time, a letter to the editors of The New York Times Magazine took them to task for devoting a weekly food feature to some pathetically arch and largely inedible recipe, when what we needed was the kind of authentic comfort that only cooking can give us. I clearly remember that the letter writer wasn't writing about "comfort food," a cliché that generally refers to mashed potatoes. Instead she was writing about the relief of cooking, and the reassurance that comes from sitting together at a table and sharing a meal.
A couple of Saturdays ago I found myself in my kitchen unexpectedly making pierogies. My husband had asked me to try a cabbage recipe from a new cookbook and it triggered a powerful sense memory of a favorite Ukrainian aunt, making these filled little dumplings. By dinner time, I had turned a head of cabbage into a bowl of "kapusta pierogies." Hours had flown by and my kitchen counter was covered with flour-dusted printouts as I merged childhood recollections with a stack of internet recipes to make a dish I hadn't eaten in decades. I took my place at our dinner table spent but consoled.
There have been other recent days filled with hours of quiet chopping and mixing with my mind going from quiet to tears to quiet, again, in private ways that only happen when I'm in my kitchen. I've baked cookies but eaten none of them, giving all of them away. The comfort has been in the making and not in the tasting.
So why do we cook? Of course we cook from hunger, but I'd rather say we cook from appetite, to eat exactly what we have in mind. This includes cooking for health and politics. Vegans, vegetarians, no butter, no wheat, sustainable seafood, locally grown, high protein, low fat -- only by cooking our meals ourselves can we be 100% sure what's on our plates.
We cook for the social experience and to eat with others. Talking with the person next to you in most Manhattan restaurants has become nearly impossible as these rooms have turned into abusively noisy dinner theaters. So if you want an interesting mealtime conversation, we must cook and eat at home.
We cook for the creative experience. It can be a thrill to take on a new recipe and try to replicate what we've had from a great chef's kitchen. Or duplicate a French or Chinese classic dish. Hours in our kitchens can be a satisfying process of problem solving, even if it's a recipe we've made a hundred times before.
We cook for the pleasure of truly good food. To take a perfectly fresh head of locally grown butter lettuce, breaking its leaves apart at its base, rinsing and carefully patting each leaf dry with a paper towel, tearing and sprinkling the lettuce with drops of good red wine vinegar and a deep green extra virgin olive oil. The taste of something so fresh and tender to the tooth becomes a profound and sensual reward.
And as I've potently found these past weeks, I also cook to remember beloved friends and family. Ones lost in recent weeks, others lost years ago, and those we love every day. Food is one of the richest threads in the tapestry of our human lives. Cooking lets us end a day or linger on a Saturday afternoon and lay our hands around the handle of a knife, lift the heft of an old cast iron pan, or fill a dish to its rim and we connect.