PART 1: ORIGINS
I began really learning to cook in my mid-twenties, at about the same time as I began really learning to write. I have only recently wondered if there is a link between these two things, other than the circumstances in which I found myself: an idle university student in possession of time for dawdling, some vague creative urges and new friends who inspired me with their own creativity and skill with a pen or a frying pan.
I had, of course, been cooking for years, in the way one does to feed oneself on first leaving home. I cooked sturdy, cheap and cheerful meals that were nutritious enough, if not exactly adventurous. I had also been writing for years, as a journalist on our small-town local newspaper, and I suspect the properties of my writing echoed those of my cooking. My articles—about artificial insemination of cattle, say, or the latest Lions Club fund-raising effort for a new piece of hospital equipment—were competent, and no doubt accurate enough. But the desire to write creatively, to bring out into the light and give shape and purpose to the inchoate longings and imaginings of my young mind, was still too unformed—or else too deeply buried to acknowledge. I remember once being asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel. The idea seemed utterly ludicrous. My questioner might as well have asked if I had yearnings to captain a ship to Antarctica, or to become a world-famous belly-dancer. It was not just that such an achievement was beyond me, but I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to expose herself—to danger, to knowing—in such a way.
Skip a few decades to a recent dinner, when a dear friend who likes to be provocative suggested that people like me cook for others as a way feeling superior to them. I admit I was a little rocked by this idea. Could he be right? Might there be even a kernel of truth in this? And if it wasn’t true, why then do I cook, and why does the satisfaction it brings me feel so profound?
I hope my friend is wrong about my motives—or mostly wrong—but I do see his point, given the almost obscene contemporary obsession with what I think of as fashion cookery: the slavish reproduction of the latest television fad, the obedient queuing outside this cake shop or that restaurant, the cult-like allegiance to this brand of olive oil or that cookbook. All this worries me, because it seems born of a kind of competitive social anxiety rather than a confident love of food, and it makes cooking into a club of knowing insiders, excluding all others. The fetishisation of chefs and dishes and ingredients and equipment led one woman I know to declare in exasperation that she just didn’t get this obsession with something as basic as food, she said. ‘I mean,’ she cried, ‘it’s just petrol!’
I am not immune to food fashion, and some of it can be fun. But I aspire to something nearer to the ground, more elemental. The home cooks I know who have the most strongly anchored, easy relationship with their skill and interest in making food are somehow both serious and casual about it at once. They might make their own passata, but they would never dream of replicating an Adriano Zumbo cake. They spend hours a day reading food books, but couldn’t give a damn about where ‘the best’ olive oil comes from.
But I’m drifting from the question. What is the nature of the pleasure I get from cooking?
Whenever we whined about being bored as children, our mother would call over her shoulder that we should ‘go and do something constructive!’ This may well have merely sprung from the desire to get yet another of her five children out of her face for a moment, but she touched on something important: the deep arising from the act of creating something that didn’t exist before you made it. Whether it’s a drawing, a paper plane, a garden bed or a tub of baba ganoush—there is something fundamentally enriching about bringing something new into existence. It’s constructive, in the most literal sense.
Another aspect of my pleasure in cooking is in the mental diversion it creates. When cooks speak of preparing a meal as a way of ‘unwinding’ or ‘relaxing’ after a hard day at work, I think there are several things at play. I am reminded of the great joy I felt for the year or so I went to Latin dancing classes. As with any kind of dancing involving patterns, what’s essentially happening when you cook is a focused engagement with something physical and momentary, with patterns of repeated movements (chopping, stirring, turning a piece of fish or meat, for example). And in that focus on the physical, the mind may be freed from whatever had previously been occupying it. One woman I spoke to about this described it as ‘free concentration’—a graceful transition from the intellectual part of her day to the leisure part of it. I wonder if this kind of freeing of the mind from niggling worries of the past hours or days, or of future expectations, the intense focus and control only of the present moment, is part of the serenity that people seek from meditation.
At the same time as I am freed from the past and the future, though, in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own. This might sound grandiose, but pour a cupful of dried Puy lentils through your fingers and tell me you don’t feel at least a faint twinge of earthy delight. Similarly, whenever I thump a cleaver through a piece of raw meat, it inevitably provokes a subtle but definite stirring of some primal life-and-death struggle.
Pinching the balled-up bud of a basil flower off a knee-high plant by the kitchen door and tossing it into a pan of pasta sauce might not satisfy as deeply as making cheese from the milk of your own cows, as does one gentleman of my acquaintance, but it’s still there, this tiny thread of connection between me and the earth. This thread is so fine nobody but me would notice it – and to others it may sound tenuous and highly romantic, but I don’t care. It’s true for me.
This kind of creativity is also mercifully free of public evaluation. In a creative field, your work is always attended by the possibility of humiliation—when a novel is published you are at the very least subject to several cool public assessments of your work, if not to newspaper declarations of your failure, or screeds of online comments about how stupid are your characters, how scant your ideas, how tedious your voice. Even when reviews turn out to be positive, the period of waiting for them makes opening the Saturday newspapers an exercise in nausea control for weeks, if not months, around publication time. So freedom from critical evaluation of the result makes the creative pleasure of cooking even deeper for me. Nobody is going to publicly declare your soufflé a workmanlike attempt in which the slight dip on the left-hand side ultimately led to the failure of the whole dish. For me, cooking (and gardening, a related pursuit) represents creativity in its purest form. It’s no surprise that many fiction writers I know also have other private creative pursuits: one plays the ukulele, another sews stunningly beautiful bed quilts. We do these things partly, I think, because the strain of producing creative work under the watchful eye of reviewers, even publishers, even our beloved readers, can leach the work of much of its joy. It’s work, after all. But cooking – or quilting, or ukulele-playing—is pleasure.
Ah, pleasure. Of course physical pleasure must also be at the heart of every good cook’s desire to do it. A friend (who, ironically, doesn’t drink much at all) once told me she didn’t trust teetotallers. To her, permanent abstinence from alcohol equates to a pathological fear of losing control, which in turn equals a fear of life. Having a couple of life-loving friends who don’t drink at all, I’m not sure about that—but I certainly agree that a love of eating and drinking seem to correspond, among the people I know, with a love of life. A powerful appetite for food and an open emotional and intellectual appetite tend to go together—or perhaps that’s my convenient prejudice.
What is not a prejudice but firm, proven data is something social researchers have been telling us for years: that connection with other people is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. For me cooking creates the occasion and the place for those connections to happen. I remember several years ago stirring a pot of something in the kitchen, listening to the near-deafening hubbub of a dozen people sitting around the table in the next room, and thinking: I have never been happier in my life than in this moment.
But what about my devil’s-advocate friend’s assertion, that people become good cooks in order to impress—even intimidate—others? Well, no doubt this is true for some. But I think the inverse is far more prevalent: that people become good cooks in order to be loved. The writer and former restaurateur Gay Bilson has spoken of her ‘need to be needed’ in this context, and in her book Plenty: Digressions on Food writes of the moment she learned, by making cream puffs at age eleven, that cookery leads to praise. I think it would be a rare cook who could truthfully deny sharing these desires. For one thing, this kind of praise is so easy to get: any good cook will tell you that the compliments lavished upon them usually far exceed the effort it took to bring the lauded dish to the table. (This is not all sweetness and light, however; so bound up is my social life and my cooking that in my darker moments I have occasionally wondered whether, if I didn’t make food for them, I would have any friends at all. If there is a sombre underside to be found in my cooking life, that is it.)
But some of the deepest satisfactions of cooking are not necessarily to do with sharing food with others, with the big dinner party or the impressive dish; it might be a single perfectly seared piece of salmon eaten on a weeknight in front of the television, or the pleasing consistency of a pea and mint soup eaten at your desk for lunch.
Thinking about the quiet but serious pleasure in these small moments, I finally recognise the most persistent feeling I have about my skill with cooking. It’s not superiority, or even wantedness—it’s that I feel lucky.
Every now and again someone will say to me wistfully, ‘I wish I liked cooking.’ I think my mother was probably this sort of person. My siblings may have differing opinions, but it seems to me she did not really like cooking much and yet she did it, hour upon hour of it, every day, with very little money, to provide nourishment for five children and a husband. Her garden was where her heart lay, and I think with a kind of sadness sometimes about how often she must have longed to be out in the garden instead of buttering yet another biscuit tray, or chopping another carrot, and I blush at how much we complained about the food she so selflessly put on our table each night.
This is when I realise my luck. To derive so much pleasure from what to some people is a chore as joyless as vacuuming feels like an enormous stroke of good fortune.
Writing and cooking are, as I have said, two separate arenas of my life, and their separateness is part of what makes them both so satisfying to me—and yet here I am, bringing them together. But there is another thread that joins them. Like many before me, I write fiction to find out what I think about the world; to open it up, look at it and place myself in it—and, in sending those books out into the public space, to share with others what I have found. In some ways, cooking does this for me too. When I try out a new technique or a recipe on my friends, or I pick a bay leaf from the little potted tree outside my kitchen, or I get excited by something as simple as a well-made frangipane tart, I am extending myself, discovering something new, and connecting myself to my world in a way that feels important.
As I write this I am increasingly impatient to get into the kitchen. I have ten people coming for dinner this evening, and I’m roasting two experimental chickens. I’m brining one of the birds before cooking, for the first time, to see why people make such a fuss about brining. As well, I’ve just been given a whole real truffle—an amazing black, chocolatey nugget of a thing—which I’m to shave and put under the skin of the second chicken before roasting. I am more excited by these two experiments to come, and yet so anchored to myself and my place in the world because of them, than it is possible to explain in words.
From Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, by me.