Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why cook for fun?

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“You  must really like to eat,” mused a close friend, outside London.  Down to 72 kg, ironically, so no.  I appreciate good food, but I don’t live for it.  “So, why fiddle so much with the cooking?”

I thought about this along a walk today and found it was a generative and consequential question. No question,  ‘Cooking well’ has become an aspiration, alongside blue-water sailing, drawing with charcoals, reading stories that touch, passing my Dutch exams, crafting personal essays, traveling widely, programming an app, and mentoring students.

Why fiddle with cooking?  Similar reasons to the other items on the Someday… list:

It's not work.  It’s become a recreation that pulls time and attention away from office tasks and pointless travel.  I have to be in the kitchen, ideally in conversation with someone else, chopping and mixing and laughing and sharing a glass of wine.  At best, it's a bit Annie Hall, but always removed from any impulse to make a Skype call.

It's broad.  There are all sorts of fascinating things to try, dishes that I’ve encountered in my travels and my reading.  Remember that café? What was in in that; how was it made?  Why this ingredient, paired with that wine?  The  answers evoke memories, cultures, heritage, possibilities: it's individual and cultural, local and global.  I can explore and discover endlessly along my own winding trail of interests and inspiration.

It's deep.  There are tools and techniques to master, chemistry and physics lying just under the surface.  I look for good ingredients, for the experience of creating something wonderful from scratch. Why aren't  my pancakes rising any more?  'It needs more bubbles, which turns out to be in the addition of buttermilk.  (Then, of course, I have to find that in Dutch.)

It's creative.  Once a basic dish works (risotto), I can play with it to make new and original things.  Sometimes it doesn’t work, memorably (leek casserole, fish pie), but often it does, remarkably (coulis, duck, fondant).   It's a bit like charcoal drawing: I erase and re-draw, smear and brush, and sometimes the result is really pleasing.

It's appreciated.  A good meal, done well with skill and well-chosen ingredients, creates a good atmosphere, facilitates conversation, generates contentment.  Sailing the islands probably comes closest to replicating that warmth among friends.

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It's enriching.  When I go to a restaurant, watch a TV chef, or travel to another country, I have a better appreciation of what the chef is doing and how he is putting his own spin on local ingredients.  I know firsthand the difficulty of making good gnocchi, when to reach for a Sicilian wine,  and the critical timing of a fondant.  Similar to visiting a museum exhibitions showing artists' studies, trying it for myself raises my appreciation of professional skill and talent.

It's portable.  Like reading and drawing, I can do it anywhere, without any special preparation or restrictions.  Ingredients are available locally at little cost; recipes and  techniques are readily at hand on the Internet (and in my Pocket files online).

It's competitive.   I can do it well, but I can also do it better than some others.  Yes, this is so wrong, but can be so satisfying.

Its social.  Everyone  makes meals, and everyone has something that they do really well, a family recipe handed down like a sourdough starter.  I learn a lot about people and their experiences, memories, touchstones, and ideas.

It’s aspirational.  I may never ski or run again, but I can learn to make paella that will stay with me well into my dotage. Cooking has the key qualities that I can really lose myself in it, can always improve at it, and can often learn from others.  Taking patience and care (and three tries at any one dish) generally yields lasting success.

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