Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Art of @$%& ('Scuse My French) Cooking

George Bernard Shaw said, "There is no sincerer love than the love of food".

We can agree with his sentiments, and quite heartily at that! Not only do we understand the love of fine dining, the experience, the palette, the snap and spice. No, we also agree that the love of our continued existence means that we necessarily must feed ourselves. Our love of self is indeed the most sincere love that we have. Call it fallen nature, call it depraved, call it normal, but there it is.

Learning to put others first is the main issue we tackle in life. I have a baby who is learning that her needs are not the center of my existence. She doesn't like it. She yells at me when I make her wait for something. She pinches me when I take away a tasty morsel that she has rescued from the couch crack.

I have a 4 year old who is learning that what she does makes other people feel good or bad. She doesn't want to think about her sisters first, because it is only natural (or depraved, however you see it) for her to take care of her own needs first.

Even still, I have a 7 year old who is learning that her limited experience in life does not make her wise enough to challenge me on everything. She hears every day that she is not the fount of all wisdom. She doesn't like it, but she has to learn that listening to other people is as important, and often more so, than listening to yourself.

From day one, we are hard-wired to look out for our own needs, and do whatever we must to ensure that those needs are met.

Food and self -preservation are linked. Take it from a former anorexic that you stop eating when you hate yourself, or a huge part of your life. Happy thoughts are following, don't worry.

We know that food is self-preservation. We eat to stay alive when our circumstances are dire. We may eat bologna, potatoes, or even grass if we must. We'll skip the salt, the butter, the china. We can eat with our hands, with neither plate nor utensil. But this is merely meeting a base need, and little more. Food is more, so much more than mere self-preservation.

Food is an expression. Actually, food is many expressions.

For the consumer, food is a way to touch that part of the soul that years for beauty. Food can taste beautiful, look beautiful, smell beautiful, and make us feel beautiful. If you haven't experienced this, take whatever you are currently eating or drinking and put it on a beautiful plate or in a crystal goblet. There is a profound difference that can be felt to the very core of your being. Indeed, I read a study once that revealed drinking orange juice from a beautiful cup is healthier than from a regular old glass. The vitamin C absorption was higher, the serotonin levels were better, and the individual who drank thus was measurably healthier.

Oh, the delight of a meal well prepared! The soul, the smile, the heart rejoices. We eat because we need to, but we prepare because we can. Delicate lacy branches of herbs, butter browned carefully with mushrooms, a carrot plucked right from the earth (or farmers' market)...these things do so much more than feed our hungry stomachs. We eat more slowly, more consciously, more purposefully when a meal has been well prepared for our enjoyment.

And for the one who prepares...well! The meal is an expression of love. We've heard this before, of course. But why is it true?

I've been cooking ever so much more than I used to. I come from a line of...non-cookers. I can't say if that is due to nature or nurture, but either way I was never taught, by example or otherwise, how to cook. It never really vexed me before this year. I could make do, follow a simple recipe. I had baked a real cake, a real lasagna, a real....something else. But cooking wasn't my thing! Why should I care? Let the Mama Palmas of the world do their thing, and I would be the happy consumer.

Well, long story short is that my kids kept going to the hospital, trying new medications, and it turns out that they are just allergic to stuff. It isn't really a hard thing to deal with...IF I cook. I cannot find enough convenience items like cereal, crackers, bread. But if I'm willing to make it, no big deal!

Crap. Did I mention that I've never been taught ANYTHING about cooking?

So I've been slaving away, making cookies so often that I no longer have to read the recipe. I've been trying my hand at homemade bread, homemade sauce, homemade e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.

What Martha Stewart didn't tell me is that there is a profound learning curve when it comes to cooking. When it comes to actually PREPARING, well...there's a reason why her show is popular and yet despised.

The first thing I ever cooked for Austin was a frozen pizza. It wasn't a purposeful choice, but of course it sticks out in my mind now. My family didn't buy frozen pizza one single time during my entire life. They still haven't. They also don't make their own. They also don't buy it. (Actually, my mom did once make a 'pizza' out of a huge mushroom turned on its head, plastered with tomato sauce, Velveeta, and chunks of tofu. I don't think it counts.) I was pretty excited about declaring my difference from family of origin food. So, I took off the pizza's plastic and popped that sucker in the oven. Voila! I felt like the moms of my childhood friends who made exotic things like Chef Boyardee and Pop-Tarts. We didn't get those things. We got rice.

Smoke filled the apartment.

Austin ran to the oven, pulled out my American masterpiece, and looked incredulously at me.

"You forgot to take off the cardboard!"

"What cardboard? Oh. Well. I...thought it was there like a pan or something."

Laughter. More laughter. Me feeling stupid, Austin laughing hysterically.

I was really, really sad about that poor fake pizza. Why? I wasn't trying to impress, just feed. But somehow, the food I was preparing (albeit very, VERY marginally) had become an expression. I wanted to feed somebody. I wanted to meet their needs, and even though I chose poorly, I could also have chosen a can of dirt and corn syrup (Chef Boyardee).

When you prepare a meal, you spend so much time. SO. MUCH. TIME. There's the scheduling (will you be home tonight?) and the meal searching/planning, the grocery shopping, and this is all prep work! The cleaning and the mixing and the measuring, the scraping and beating and flouring and kneading....all for such a small thing, in the end.

The chef prepares in anticipation that those she serves will be delighted. She prepares in expectation that what she makes will be taken into the very being of those she serves. Naturally, the love in a meal well prepared can be felt.

But it is hard. Really, really hard. It is difficult to do all of this, day after day, week after week, grocery trip after grocery trip.

I run out of ideas, energy, money, and then desire to even try. I burn stuff. I don't know how to season properly. I've never been given any help in the whole 'dead animal' department, and cannot cook a steak/chicken/pig(gulp!) AT.ALL.

I got rather frustrated today when I was trying to make soup. I didn't have certain parts ready when I needed them, and other steps were done way too early. I envisioned yet another night of 'whoops, sorry this doesn't taste great' and 'let's just have cereal'.

But then, as I stirred the browning onions, I realized that I knew they weren't ready yet. Onions turn a certain color when they are sauteed for the right amount of time, and mine weren't quite the right hue. I put my face closer to the fragrant mix, the simple heated decadence of onion and butter. Tonight, the soup would work.

Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, Julia Child, Giada de Whatsit, they are all so amazing on their shows. They have it down to an exact science. I'm very, very far from their enthusiasm and expertise. But, they are also trying to teach me how to cook.

I've never had that before.

As always, it is hard to listen to someone else. I'd rather take my own advice, figure my own way through the difficult tunnels and trapdoors of cookery. But it isn't about me. It is about so much more.

The art of cooking is, as in many things, in the practice. I must play with the paints and get my shirt dirty before I come up with a masterpiece. Even then, I'll do well to remember that not all meals can be Renoir or Monet (Coq Au Vin). Some must be Modern Art (Noodles and sauce).

Bon appetit!


palmahome said...

Love, love, LOVE it! You touched my heart my dear!

Catherine said...

How pleasant it is to hear this! I've always loved cooking and baking. The experimenting, the feeling I get from watching others enjoy my creations. Every week I make 1 new recipe. Every week I make a meal plan for lunches, dinners, and sweets. I organize my grocery list in order of where everything is in the store, I research new recipes, read the reviews, make notes on the suggestions. I try to rotate foods, so there's variety. Sometimes I feel that all of this is lost on the people who get to eat the meal- mostly Colin. Although he appreciates the food, loves the food, eats all the food, he doesn't GET what it took to get him that food. It's refreshing to know that you went from knowing zero about cooking, to actually being able to notice the cooking stages of an onion. It makes me happy that there is someone who really gets it now. Yay! Welcome to the other side! And please feel free to recommend recipes to me.

Kristi said...

This was simply lovely. And. That's all.