On Cooking

For the better part of twenty five years, I’ve been in the kitchen.

What I’ve learned about myself, in all these years, is that I am not me without food. Without cooking. Since I was a tiny baby…scratch that, I was never a tiny baby. Since I was a venti-sized baby, I’ve been cooking. I know, impossible. A newborn with a whisk? Sometimes I wonder.

But it’s true. I find cooking when I scan my oldest memories. Flour dusting over third birthday parties, crumbly dough balls wedged in between that time the front tire popped off my Big Wheel and I learned that pesky cursive “Q,” a melted butter sheen on my first love letter.

How did my crib get in the kitchen?

steak and couscous dinner

I’ve always been an observer. Keen on watching people, things, and events like I was going to be tested on my recollection later. A shame I didn’t go the detective route. A wonder I didn’t do better on my SAT verbal. I’m intensely interested in how things are made and in the manner in which others go about doing things. Fitting that I’d sit for hours on the painted oak footstool in the kitchen and watch my mother put on a magic show with butter, flour, and eggs. What’s her trick? Though never a rabbit, what she pulled out of the oven was magnificent- different every time.

My whole life, I loved to watch her cook. I’m sure if we were to dig up her birth certificate, we’d find her middle name to be “From Scratch.” The woman was making homemade crackers, pies, stews, wellingtons, and pates, faster than Good Housekeeping could churn out a cookbook. It was marvelous. I’d look up at her dusting confectioner’s sugar on a pan of the most lusciously lemon squares. With family to arrive any minute, she’d still have her wet hair in a towel, basting a golden brown bird with buttery glaze. She wrote the book on entertaining. The whole enchilada- from table setting, to theme, to tettrazini followed by tiramisu.

By age 4 I was helping her frost a freshly baked layer cake. We were browsing the Silver Palate Cookbook like a bedtime story. I spent years at her side, asking questions, watching cupcakes dome through the oven door, learning to read almost exclusively by recipe cards. Most likely spelling ‘Andouille’ before ‘Andrea.’ I divided my time between Sesame Street and Julia Child. And somehow, without consciously realizing the transition, I became the cook. Funny how that happens.

I loved the layering of ingredients, the depth of flavor, the trust I gained in myself as a cook. The anticipation of taste and texture. The fact that the end game was always an exhibit of my own creativity. The way that careful plating fed my eyes first. I flowed with a natural ease, a sashay from stove top to sink to counter. From mince to mix to mascerate. I embraced the timing. The precision. The delicate nature of cooking and baking. The requisite taste testing. Because there’s value in wrapping your tongue around the beater’s wires to get every last lick of buttercream. What that value is, I’m not sure, but my belly is, and I’d say that’s enough. I leave most major decisions to that part of me- the wisdom of my waist.

I don’t just love food. It’s not the strands of linguine wrapped around the tines of a fork that I’m after. It’s knitting the velvet robe of bechamel. It’s not even the slice of dark chocolate torte. Ok, it is the slice of chocolate torte. What I mean to say, is that my passionate love affair with food does not begin and end with the food itself. I fell in love with the dish, the slice, the bowlful, through the learning… and the labor… and the loving memories born of them.

Perhaps especially in the past five years, after losing 135lbs, I have made even more of a life in my kitchen. Uncertain of how to reintroduce the foods I loved all my life, but had given up throughout weight loss, I began creating my own recipes. Healthier versions of the classics. I said to myself, “Anyone who throws caution to the wind and uses an unlimited amount of butter, cream, oil, and the like, will ultimately make a dish that tastes delicious. Because butter, in and of itself, takes taste to the next level. But the true challenge, the mark of a truly good cook, is the creation of flavor. Knowing the essence of good food, understanding flavor complements, how to use herbs and spices to cultivate that perfect palate pleaser, believing that food can be just as beautiful on its own without makeup and a ballgown.

I experimented. I failed. I may have cried once or fifty- two times. But making the dishes I had always loved, in a way that felt wholesome and somehow pure, felt so worthwhile. So satisfying. My mind jogged through memories of buffalo chicken pizza in my first college dorm, White paper boxes of Chinese food littered around my family’s table, and every celebration with thick wedges of buttercream-bathed fudge cake. There will be a life for these beloved eats, I promised myself.

I kept that promise. Five years later and I’m still cooking up classics with my own flair.

I sit here now in my own kitchen, a coast away from my mother, the one who breathed life into my cooking lungs. I recreate the confections we once made. The ones that drew me, nose first, into the kitchen, tied themselves to moments in my life, and tucked themselves away in the closet of my memory. Enough to fill a book. A bookcase.

I cook and I cook. And when I’m done cooking I bake. Then I bake again. Because I am not me without it. I’ve built a life here, in my kitchen. And even as an adult… the butter, the sugar, the flour and the eggs…they still feel like magic.