My good friend, one of the most accomplished, generous and gracious hosts I know, asked several of us last week what it feels like to love to cook.
She’s a good cook but doesn’t read recipes for fun as much as to find something. She gets anxious easily which you have to abolish if you want to enjoy cooking.
I’ve been cooking for 70 years – actually have a photo somewhere of 6-year-old me earnestly stirring a bowl of chocolate cake batter, scarf tied over my head and chin dabbed with cocoa goatee.
Those were the days of “the way to a man’s heart”, and I’m sure this was a dessert to wow my father. He actually did respond to food cues, kind of like our dogs and cats, but unlike them, he never just enjoyed my company, found me “enough,” whatever that was.
About the same time I started cooking, I started playing the piano. Music and cooking have a lot more in common than you might suspect. For both, the creator starts with those notes but can interpret notes, tempo, dynamics according to personal talents and whims.
Seven decades of cooking and mixology, including one roast goose, signature cocktails for 125 weddinggoers, and successful sourdough, means when I scorch something in this new oven, I serve it with a smile and a brief apology and move on. It means when new recipes or new combinations aren’t stellar, I’m the first to acknowledge. And I’m fine with that, don’t feel diminished in any way. Just a little disappointed in the food and not myself. Every kitchen’s a test kitchen.
My cooking gifts are the ability to taste an unknown recipe (usually), enthusiasm, ambition and obsessive scheduling. When we’re having friends over, I usually outline the day in time blocks. Sometimes one or all fail, especially when I try new stuff on company. That’s OK. That’s so OK.
These days people are happy to be invited to your home to sit down with candles, music, cloth napkins and a bottle or two of decent wine. (Finding a good wine merchant helps worlds with this last.)
We’ve been in this house for seven months now, and I have yet to use good silver, but I shun paper cups and paper plates. Everyday crockery and stainless for us.
Because we’re officially retired, I can start cooking in advance and use the freezer a lot. Casseroles and dessert seem to be OK with this; meat, not so much. Now we try and grill or roast meat, if that’s what we’re having, as guests come in the front door.
That means I’m discovering appetizers all over again for the first time since half a century ago when we young apartment dwellers prepared every course for get-togethers and supper clubs, using cookbooks for each of the separate courses!
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve also discovered mixed drinks. A good and interesting drink, an appetizer that’s healthy without being overwhelmingly hearty (try Michael Twitty’s black-eyed pea dip that another kitchen goddess friend found), some good crackers (maybe homemade – remember, we’re both retired) and you or your partner can grill whatever and get dinner on the table without heart palpitations.
The other gets to socialize. Take turns with this so one of you isn’t always exiled to kitchen.
Don’t be afraid to wear an apron, in or out of the kitchen. People look at that and think, “Someone’s actually cooking.” And you can never get the electric yellow of butternut squash out of your clothes. Just sayin.’
So, long way back to original question, cooking feels like I’m using my imagination to “taste” the results as well as to substitute either ingredients or amounts. I learned when I lived 30 minutes each way from a grocery store to use what I had, and experience taught me things like we won’t be able to eat anything with 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper. So I cut it way down, put the salt and peppers on the table and gave others the option to add more.
It feels like a visit to the past, using the recipes of others I’ve known and loved. The smell of bubbling applesauce, for instance, brings back my best grandmother’s summer kitchen. I’m 10 years old again and learning to make an apple crisp that’s actually crispy on top.
It feels like anticipation. Oh, how wonderful this is going to taste! Now that my stomach’s coming back from a recent bug, I can imagine the rounded taste of soy sauce, ketchup, honey, garlic and basil on these slow-cooker chicken thighs for supper.
It feels like accomplishment. There, I can sit outside on this beautiful afternoon and know dinner’s taken care of.
It feels like being a good steward of our world – as little packaging and waste as possible.
It feels like being a discoverer on an endless voyage. We have adorable new neighbors who are vegans. I’ve never – on purpose, anyway – tried vegan cooking, and some of it’s really not bad. (That’s the official Julia Child term, btw, “not bad.”)
You can always go to the market and find new vegetables, new fruits, new cuts of meat, new cuisines. We have a Persian vendor here in the Lexington, VA (pop. 7,000) farmers’ market! Farmers/cooks love to tell you exactly what to do with their wares.
Look up easy Ukranian recipes and try something unfamiliar. Again, a neverending story of discovery.
Take breaks. Wear good shoes, Drink water. Read MFK Fisher’s How To Cook a Wolf, and appreciate your privilege. Enjoy the trip.