Assembling a Cooking Life

I’ve been working on a section of my food life story that takes place when I was in my twenties.  Those were years when I was working professionally as a cook and/or baker.  I was also living with a group of friends, contentedly cooking vegetarian fare and learning, by doing, the meaning of home and hearth.  Cooking was central to our lives, of course.  Post-college there were no more dining hall meals; far from our parent’s homes (literally or figuratively) the duty fell upon our selves.  We had weekly responsibilities for every aspect of a cooking life, from working a shift at the food coop, to doing the shopping there and hauling the bags and boxes home (up a long steep flight of stairs from the Central Square Food Coop.) A shopping list of foodstuffs was created by the group, with consideration of the needs and desires of each member.  That alone was quite a learning process.

Once home, the perishables were refrigerated, the staples poured into their pantry jars and someone would begin to cook supper, a task we each did one night a week.  And of course, after supper there was the washing up.  I don’t believe we were really aware of participating in a daily rite-of-passage from child to adult.  Looking back, I see that finding our way, expressing our own preferences and adapting to those of others in the matter of food is a central aspect of developing an independent life.

One evening, as I carried food from the kitchen into the dining room, which was in a drafty, glass-enclosed porch space, one step down from the rest of the first floor, I had my first conscious epiphan-ette.  Simple, powerful and a sensation that is as alive for me today, almost 40 years later, as it was then.  I’m going to tell you, but it may not ‘hit’ you with the internal combustion that I experienced that evening.  In fact, having never thought about this event quite so intently before, I realize what I experienced could be called mindfulness.

peasoupHere’s what happened that evening, as I was carrying a pot of Split Pea Soup or pan of Spinach Lasagna, or platter of Walnut Cheddar Loaf, or Falafel, or Three Precious Fried Rice.  As I carried it carefully across the uneven floor toward the dim, cozy, ramshackle room, filled with laughing and chatter,  voice, far older than my years said to me:  “Pay attention now.  This is it; these are the times that hold the powerful magic.  The routine times, not the special events, that’s when our lives are lived and built.  Be awake and cherish the day-after-day repeated gatherings.”  And so I did.  I can still feel the deep thrill, filling-my-body with juicy emotion: the satisfaction of that moment.  And I am grateful.

How is this my food life story?  I cook for others for the satisfaction of feeding.  I cook for the sensory pleasure of handling delicious ingredients.  I cook for the olfactory delight of the chemistry wrought by combining foods with heat.  I am ever-hungry for new ideas, hearing what others have created in their kitchens.  I share my own experiments and how-to’s to spread the joy around; to see others light up with possibilities and the fun to be had.

Everyone eats, so someone has to cook.  There are so many pitfalls available in our contemporary food culture, from culinary excesses to nutritional deficits.  The processed food industrial complex and their advertising cohort pound us with deception, alarm, seduction and fear.  The practical foodways of our ancestors certainly had their drawbacks, but of necessity, they also got some things right.  We can’t go back.  Eating more locally, with fresher food is a huge plus, but the world is far too global now to turn back the hands of time.  Nor do I wish to.  I believe we can move forward into a simpler time, when the essential human pleasures of cooking and eating are grounding, not fracturing.

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