Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why we cook

From my garden: basil waiting to be turned into pesto; French breakfast radishes; mesclun, cinnamon basil.

Richie, who writes one of my very favorite blogs, Line Cook, defined (for himself) what cooking is and asked his readers: What are we to cooking? The comments were interesting and informative and I spent a lot of time thinking this over at random moments throughout the days.

I've been cooking forever; my first proper meal was in grade school, a Sunday dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy, and some kind of canned vegetable (frozen was a luxury back then). After that initial success, I was expected to participate at least weekly in the food preparation. I already had baking down pat (not just slice & bake) so this was a natural segue. My mom could feed an army in under thirty minutes (suck on that, Rachael Ray) and my dad would raid the spice cupboard to make sure it tasted good.

As I got older, PBS started running all-day cooking shows every Saturday. My dad would be inspired and write ingredients alongside his crossword (preparation be damned) and we'd eat something similar later in the week. It was most definitely the next level in my cooking as we--as a family--became more experimental in the kitchen.

When I graduated high school, I landed a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home kitchen. The bosses liked me and would give me various cooking duties whenever we were short-staffed. Institutional cooking is not quite as much fun as your own kitchen, but it was a nice change from waiting tables and wrapping individual bread slices. Plus there was a certain fascination in making 25 lbs of egg salad in one afternoon. Hypnotic. Weirdly hypnotic.

After that, I decided I wanted a degree in English so I got one and bounced around libraries and publishing. Always, always interested in food but not wanting to commit to it. I had a brush with culinary school after the first time I got fired. I was collecting unemployment, the Food Network has just come into being, and I liked to bake. What the hell? I was accepted to the bakery arts program at The Restaurant School (and yes, I did have to apply. They didn't take everyone.) and took some serious time to mull it over. After much mulling I realized that, whilst I liked to bake for friends and family, I couldn't see myself working at someone else's mercy. I chose publishing.

Now I'm home, raising twins, and doing freelance work on a journal for a company I left on good terms. The best part (besides the money)? It's a food journal. And I love it. :-) I cook almost every single meal, bake my own bread, and almost never purchase store-baked goods. I take a great amount of pride in what I do in my kitchen.

In a roundabout way, this brings me to my answer: What do I bring to cooking? I don't have Thomas Keller's depth; Gabrielle Hamilton's extraordinary talent; or Richie's drive but I do have a passion for food and I try to respect it as much as possible. I bring to each meal a history of an only child spending time in the kitchen with her parents, refusing to touch raw chicken, offering instead to make scalloped potatoes. Someone who, when her father was on disability and her family was living week-to-week, learned how to make Mexicali with canned vegetables, Minute Rice, and the cheapest ground beef because a proper meal had to be put on the table. Someone who now does not deny the lessons learned from her childhood kitchen and, instead, uses them to creatively feed her family today. I still love a fried Spam-wich, and a bowl of the cheapest generic boxed mac & cheese is something to die for.

What do you think? Why do you cook? And what do you bring to cooking?

Apple & prosciutto salad with walnuts; ropa vieja, black beans, and rice; BBQ chicken, cucumber salad, and spicy corn bread; falafel; asparagus & prosciutto pizza/plain cheese pizza, spring pea soup and pecorino romano soda bread.


Jerry said...

Great stuff. I like the new format. And I promoted you on my Facebook page. :-)

Anonymous said...

I looked at your web site cause I saw it on Jerry's Face Book page.... How bad a wife can she be if she cooks Ropa Vieja!

Andy Herrera

LA said...

Um, I don't cook. But I appreciate people who cook FOR me!! LOL.

Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

Your menu of items all look wonderful! I'm off to the Farmer's Market filled with inspiration :)

Bridget said...

I remember once when I mentioned liking Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and said one of my favorite meals growing up was that and fried bologna sandwiches, one of my co-workers commented: "Wow. Only poor people eat that kind of stuff."

As if that was a bad thing ...