The Frontal Cortex

Home Cooking

The closing of Gourmet magazine is a sad event. I won’t just miss the lush pictures and Paris travel tips – what I’ll really miss is the food journalism, from DFW on the suffering of lobsters to Daniel Zwerdling on the tragic life of an industrial chicken. I hope other magazines can fill the void, because our food supply is messed up.

But this blog post isn’t just another lament for the glossy. I had a short essay scheduled to run in the January issue of Gourmet on the pleasures of home cooking. Since that issue will no longer see the light of day, I thought I’d reproduce the essay below. (Note: the article was still in the process of being edited, so it comes with all the usual caveats: too wordy, flabby, imprecise, etc.)

I discovered the pleasure of home cooking while working in a restaurant. It was a fancy French place, and I was a lowly line cook; most of my days were spent laboring over a cauldron of veal stock. After ten hours in the kitchen, I’d reek of meaty bones and sweated onions; my hands ached from all the chopping and cutting. Even my tongue was tired.

But I was still hungry – staff meal was a long time ago. And so, although I was sick of the stovetop, I’d begin the ritual of my late-night dinner. A clove of garlic would be added to a pool of hot oil; the canned tomatoes would splatter as they entered the pan. I’d boil the spaghetti, watch the starch thicken the sauce and always add just a little too much parmesan. And then I would taste, and then I would reach for the salt, and then I would eat.

Why was I making pasta at midnight? We eat because we must, but we cook for a more mysterious set of reasons. When I entered my tiny kitchen – it was little more than a hot plate overlooking an airshaft – I was doing more than putting food on the plate. I was enacting a ritual, reminding myself that every appetite is an opportunity, a chance to wring some pleasure from a basic human need. We might start with a pantry of tin cans and a box of hard durum wheat, but if we stir and simmer and season then we end up with something else: a bite of stained red pasta, twirled around a fork. A moment of repose. An ounce of happiness.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time – I just wanted to feed myself – but those bowls of spaghetti taught me something important. It was late and I was tired, but I was slowly learning how to enjoy the process of cooking, and not just the finished product. The eating, after all, is the easy part. The difficult secret is finding a way to enjoy everything else, from the peeling of garlic to the stirring of the sauce. Although we obsess over the adjectives and nouns of cooking – the things we eat and the way they taste – the pleasures of home cooking are all about the verbs. Because it’s the doing that one must celebrate; the dinner speaks for itself.

The problem, of course, is that cooking is hard work, an act of manual labor after a long day of labor. We toil to make a meal and then, in a matter of minutes, the meal is over, leaving behind a mess of crumbs, dishes and grease spackled counters. Perhaps we’ll conclude that the microwave would have been easier, or that next time we’ll curl up on the couch with takeout. There were many nights when I’d look at my dirty kitchen and be filled with regret. Why make pasta when I could just eat pizza?

But the work, I assure you, is worth it. If you only looked at recipes, with their elaborate instructions and long shopping lists, you’d probably conclude that cooking was nothing but a procession of strange chores. We do something to a piece of protein, and then we do something else, and then we stick it in the oven for a vague amount of time. Voila!

If home cooking were merely those culinary mechanics – if it looked, in other words, like a cooking show on television – then it really would be a dismal labor, best left to the French experts and fast-food chains. But interwoven with all that chopping and roasting and cleaning is a more subtle activity, which is the real reason I enjoy the act of making dinner. This verb doesn’t require fancy copper pans or a big stand mixer; we don’t have to make a mess or trek across the city for duck fat. All we have to do is pay attention, to focus, if only for a few minutes, on the food right in front of us.

This was the enduring lesson of my first beef stew. The dish was too ambitious for me – I was a total amateur, with a crush on Julia Child – but there was something deeply thrilling about the experience, which was so full of new things to notice. There was the sound of sizzling onions and the way their sizzle accelerated when they started to brown. There was the stickiness of wet meat coated in dry flour and the purple wine that I wasn’t old enough to drink. There was the wooded perfume of the herbs, tied together with string, and the way the flavors I could name mingled into a taste I could not. These were all such minor observations that I’d normally ignore them; life is too noisy to listen to onions, too busy to watch a sauce slowly simmer and thicken.

But what I learned from that stew is that these trifling details – the precise shade of brown on the beef, the thickness of the cut carrots – weren’t just details: they were the difference between a tasty triumph and a disappointing failure. Unless I concentrated on the food above the flame, I’d never get the dish right. I’d burn the roux and undercook the meat. I’d add too much pepper and not enough salt. I’d have missed a chance for pleasure because I indulged a distraction. Because my mind was somewhere else when it should have been here, staring into the bottom of the pot.

Most things in life become more automatic with time. This, after all, is the gift of experience – it allows us to pay less attention, so that we don’t have to think about maintaining our balance on a bicycle, or shifting gears in a car. But with cooking the opposite happens – the more time we spend in the kitchen the more we notice. The act is intensified, layered with new subtleties. The first time I cooked beef stew, I was merely obeying a recipe, counting off the minutes until the mirepoix was sweated and the meat was seared. But now I don’t need the clock – I’ve learned how to smell the dark sugar of cooked onions, how to see when the stew is viscous with the richness of bones. The dish is the same – beef bourguignon is too perfect to ever change – but my sense of it has become much richer.

This is the moral of the kitchen: even the most mundane rituals deserve our attention. And maybe they deserve it most of all. To cook is to insist that every hunger is a potential occasion, not just for something delicious (because deliciousness can be easily bought), but for that quality of experience that comes when the flame is on high and the last knob of butter is being whisked into the sauce. The tough meat is finally tender and there’s the pile of parsley, waiting to be sprinkled over the stew. It’s all so fleeting – the food will soon be eaten, the mess will be cleaned up tomorrow – but Virginia Woolf was right: “Of such moments the thing is made that endures.” We have taken a need and made a meal.

And then there’s the next meal. Who knows what we’ll want to eat? Because we cook, we don’t just see things as they are, raw and tough and fibrous. We look at what is and we glimpse the possible – that ugly fish can have crispy skin, and that bitter broccoli rabe would be delicious with garlic and oil. The pretty radicchio belongs in a risotto and those leftover scraps of meat will make a perfect stock. The world, it turns out, is a pretty delicious place. All it needs a little attention, and maybe just a pinch of salt.

Comments

  1. #1 Xenia
    October 7, 2009

    Now you’ve done it. I’m hungry and feel like cooking.

  2. #2 William Forward
    October 7, 2009

    Ain’t it grand!

  3. #3 OftenWrongTed
    October 8, 2009

    Looking forward to Gourmet Magazine’s now former editor Ruth Reichl’s book. “Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen. (ISBN: 0618610189}. May we all eat well.

  4. #4 Gaga
    October 9, 2009

    This was so beautifully written, so poignant, so true.

  5. #5 Marilyn
    October 9, 2009

    arghhhhhhhhhh….

  6. #6 dmf
    October 13, 2009

    indeed, sounds like you are channeling the good prof. Hubert Dreyfus’ California-ish Heidegger on living the good life.

  7. #7 Jay Swift
    October 13, 2009

    Outstanding. Jonah has captured the spirit of a cook like few others. Bravo!!

  8. #8 HCJ
    October 13, 2009

    I think this is so true that over time you concentrate more on cooking than less, or at least you can do this. Your post actually explains to me why I’ve started to get really fussy about how I make my mac and cheese from a box. I enjoy being able to manipulate it, to make it the best possible mac and cheese, based on years of experience and understanding of its nuance.

  9. #9 Emma
    October 13, 2009

    As someone who has cooked almost every night for 30 years, I agree totally. But Virginia Woolf? She couldn’t boil an egg, and paid Nelly or Lottie or someone to cook everything, even toast, for her for her whole life. Somehow I don’t think she was referring to cooking in that quote.

  10. #10 adamwiz
    October 13, 2009

    Wonderful post, thank you.

  11. #11 Jim
    October 13, 2009

    I sometimes try to explain to people why I find cooking for myself and others such a relaxing pastime. Part of it is that it is a process of transformation that I get to partcipiate in, rather than watch. It takes place over a period of a few minutes, or hours, or, in rare cases, even days. It is particpating in an old human tradition – and one that likely played a role in our evolution from apes.

    I like it because it brings an intense focus to brief periods of my life. The outside world, except perhaps for the friends and family for whom I cook, is gone, and there it is in front of me: a pile of prepped ingredients like an orchestra to be conducted. I may have the sheet music in front of me, but it’s up to me to extract the beauty.

    Of course, the are the sensual joys – the aromas and the flavors layering with each added ingredient. I remember the first time I braised a piece of beef, and I couldn’t believe, even halfway through, that it would ever become palatable. And then it became more than that.

  12. #12 thebob.bob
    October 14, 2009

    No timers, no measurement. Do it “juste comme il faut”.

    Sadly, this will probably have a larger audience on-line than it would have had in print.

    Cheers!

  13. #13 Tatiana
    October 15, 2009

    Very well said. I would take it a bit further and say that the same might apply to many things around us, many of those tiny daily rituals, which could be mundane, but could be almost sacred. I am reminded of an elderly woman patching holes in linens in Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s “Planet of people”.