Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I Cook

I'm at home today because there's a team of plumbers in the basement installing a back-flow valve. This will, hopefully, prevent sewage from coming up our basement drain in the event of another (and let's face it, inevitable) flood like the one we had in July .

ANYway, given that their jackhammers are making either writing my oyster piece OR napping impossible, I was just rootling through Twitter and someone was talking about their new blog post on Why I Cook, which was inspired by Michael Ruhlman's post on the same subject. It's kind of an interesting question -- in the same way that, apparently, some historians don't take food history seriously as a subject because food just is, and therefore isn't interesting enough to research/write about*, cooking just is. It's universal. Well, except for the raw food people, of course, but for most of us, cooking is just a fact of life and not one that you particularly question. It's like asking why you wear shoes or something, you just do.

So, why do I cook? Well, it's a three part answer, but it all comes down to the same thing: Pleasure.

I Cook For Me
Not to get all Nigella on you, but for me cooking is pure pleasure. And I don't just mean weekend cooking when you get to spend time at the market and lovingly pick every ingredient, or even just ransack your pantry and then spend hedonistic hours in the kitchen while a cassoulet simmers fragrantly in your oven. I'm talking about every time I set foot in the kitchen. From making a sandwich to frying an egg, cooking fills me with every positive emotion you care to name. So much so, that I find it hard to stay out of the kitchen at parties (only with the host's permission, of course, since God knows I don't like people in my kitchen) or out of the way at cooking schools. I have to get in on the action.

And, truly, is there anything more lovely than a few minutes at the stove, contemplatively cooking an omelette? Or chopping vegetables? Or searing the perfect steak? Or whisking a salad dressing exactly to your taste? And what about all those little kitchen miracles -- watching butter and egg become hollandaise, or the way a simple mixture of yeast, flour and water will rise into the perfect pizza dough, or thickening a sauce with roux. How can anyone not find pleasure in making this stuff happen? It's magic.

I Cook For You
The pleasure of cooking is increased many times over when you've got an appreciative audience. My mother has noticed over the years that the people she meets who don't cook are generally the ones who don't have an audience. If the person you're feeding doesn't notice what they're eating, then your pleasure in cooking is bound to be diminished. I am grateful to be surrounded by people who are interested in and appreciative of their food. There is nothing better than watching someone react to something I've made for them. If they love it unconditionally, then it's like Christmas, and if they suggest that the dish is missing something or could use a little less this/that, then it means they're really paying attention and tasting and dinner becomes more than just a meal, it becomes a conversation.

Now that I think about it, actually, I think there IS something better than simply cooking for others -- when your friends and family e-mails to ask for your recipe, or calls to ask for tips on how you made something. A few years ago, Kate asked me how I make my ribs. So I wrote out the three-day process that I use (probably the first time I ever had to write a recipe out for something I just make without thinking!) and e-mailed it off to her. The ever-practical mother of four promptly simplified the recipe ("do I REALLY have to brine for 24 hours? Really, Kara?") to her tastes and has been making it for family parties ever since. Then last night, my friend S. called to ask how I prepare the fish for Baja Fish Tacos, which I'd made for her and her husband last month. I know that S. will take this dish and make it her own, make it part of her repertoire, and share it with others who will then tweak the recipe to suit their own tastes. What an enormous compliment to have people want to replicate/tweak foods that you've introduced them to.

I Cook To Eat
The pleasure of cooking is only matched by the pleasure of eating. And I love to eat. Oh, goodness, but I love to eat. Which is why it's funny to remember that I was such a godawful picky eater as a kid. Looking back, I really feel sorry for my mother, who is an excellent cook, for having to deal with my limited diet. Only the plainest foods were allowed on my plate, nothing could touch each other, no visible fat was allowed on my meat and I'm pretty sure the only cooked vegetable I ate from birth to my mid-20s was corn niblets. I'm not kidding. I didn't try olives or pickles or raw tomatoes or ANY of the foods I now consider basics until I was in university. Pathetic! However, I've been making up for lost time for years now and, with the exception of insects and some organ meats, will pretty much eat anything**.

Especially if I've had the pleasure of cooking it.


*Don't even get me STARTED on how wrong this point of view is. At least 27 different kinds of wrong.
** And beets. If I wanted to taste basement, I'd go lick the cellar floor.


shona said...

Baja Fish Tacos were delicious - thank you! - but they could have used your magic sauce (that sounds wrong)... can you give me the recipe, or is it a secret? :)

S. xo

Kathryn McGowan said...

Things that "just are" tend to be the most important aspects of our culture and so should be celebrated. I love all of your reasons for cooking, it *is* magical. We get to take a pile of everyday ingredients and turn them into something captivating. What's not to like.

Thanks for the link!

The Mighty Ks said...

S. -- one part mayonnaise to 2 parts plain yoghurt, generous pinch each of sweet smoked paprika, cinnamon and ground cumin. Stir it up and let sit while you prepare the rest of the tacos.