Why I Cook

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Michael Rulman, a journalist chef, recently listed the reasons he cooks on his blog. He then asked the question that launched a thousand comments- why do you cook? The responses, though many, seemed to play variations on two themes- health and enjoyment. People cook because it is easier to have control over both ingredient selection and proper preparation. They also cook because they’d rather unwind in front of the stove than the TV; it’s enjoyable.

I think this is an important question to for everyone to answer, even if your answer is the same as everyone else’s. In the middle of your third stack of dishes, with five more stacks to go, it helps to remember why you do this thing called cooking.

I cook because . . .

Cooking allows to express my creativity. Early on, elementary school art classes wounded and stifled any overt creativity I had. Before you go wailing about the terrible teachers I must have had, let me just say that there are many reasons I dreaded art class, not the least of which is my deep rooted perfectionism. Unlike other things at school, when I didn’t “get” art right away, I gave up. For the same reasons some poor students flourish in art class, I withered. I’ve also never been a good draw-er, which seemed to be the meta-skill in art class. You couldn’t just put a paintbrush to paper, you had to draw something and then paint it.

Later in life, my creativity squirmed out into other areas, like writing. But I think it has come into its fullness in my cooking. Instead of ultramarine and vermilion colored pigments, I have blueberries and smoked paprika to paint with. Instead of an easel and brush, I use a saute pan and whisk. I collect cookbooks the same way an artist might collect other artists’ art- not necessarily to copy them, (I rarely follow recipes) but for the brainstorms they cause.

Cooking is relaxing. I don’t don’t mean a candles-and-bubble-bath relaxing, although there are some meals that come close. I mean relaxing in the way that a long bike ride or run can be relaxing. I once had a cross country coach who, when I was sick, told me to run an “easy three miles” instead of coming to normal practice. It sounds laughable to me now, but back then it made sense. Cooking is work; anyone who says otherwise has spent too much time watching Rachael Ray and not enough time chopping onions. There are many times I come to the dinner table out of breath, like a runner crossing the finish line.

When I was in college, I loved to cook because it was relaxing to pull my head out of the books and use more of my body than my fingertips. Similarly, even after a long day at work, I look forward to cooking because it uses more than just my smile and “thanks for coming.” I’ve often wondered if the reason things like running or yoga or cooking are relaxing is because they demand we use our whole bodies and give our weary minds a break.

Cooking is how I care for the people I love. This might have its roots in the deep Midwestern culture I grew up in. When a Big Event happened to someone, whether crisis or blessing, the appropriate response was to bring them casseroles – to cook for them. General care and concern were layered into the pyrex dishes along with the cream of mushroom soup. For me, this impulse has mushroomed into more than just a Big Event response. I feed the people I love. Sometimes this is an intentional activity, like inviting people I’d like to get to know better over for dinner. But more often, it just happens. I can’t help it. Some people give back rubs, some people buy gifts, and some people just spend time to show they care. Me? I cook.

Cooking is part of being human. This might seem an odd point to make, but I think it’s worth mentioning in a list like this. Cooking is one of the things that separates us from the rest of nature. We are the animal that cooks. Homo cookien.

Cooking transforms things. Cooking is all about transforming one thing into another. Cream into butter. Muscle into steak. But, like the best alchemists knew, the transformation of the material is really just a metaphor for the transformation of the alchemist himself. It’s not just flour and water becoming bread, or leaves and oil becoming pesto. Ultimately, the point is not the bread or the pesto, but the kind of person who is made. You could put this transformational power into simplistic terms and turn each dish into a fable. “Cutting this onion taught me the value of precision.” or “Beating these egg whites by hand taught me patience.” You could do that. I think you’d be missing the point if you did that though. A hunk of lead learning to be precise or patient is not nearly as stunning as lead becoming gold. The alchemy of cooking comes as close to sanctification as anything I know.

I am a different person now than I was four years ago when I started cooking in earnest. I don’t mean it was a direct cause and effect relationship – I started cooking and therefore became a different person. But rather, as those egg whites went from runny to stiff peaks, a little bit of me solidified too. As the dough was being kneaded, I, too, was developing a better structure. As so often happens with daily tasks that are barely remembered the next morning, cooking changed me.

That is why I keep cooking.

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Posted in Uncategorized 7 years, 8 months ago at 9:03 pm.

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