When I was growing up, cooking wasn’t something that I did. My only adventures in the gourmet world were toasted bagels and peanut butter and macaroni and cheese out of the box. My mom made good food for us, but didn’t enjoy cooking herself and so I only learned the basics of what a kitchen could do. (It’s funny that I now credit her for my love of cooking!). As I got older and lived in a dorm, my culinary artwork was limited to pushing a button on a microwave. After college, I cooked because I needed to eat and feed people at my house, but it wasn’t something I really thought about beyond, “What should I make tonight?”
Something happened to me in the last few years that changed all of that apathy. Although I’m not sure I can pinpoint THE event that made me love my kitchen, I’m aware of a few things that happened. We started inviting people over to our house on Sunday nights for dinner and movies. I’ve always loved entertaining, but creating dinners for everyone, sometimes feeding 8-10 people and even a surprise extra few changed my attitude towards cooking. Since the number of people fluctuated, I had to expand what I made at a moment’s notice, forcing me to improvise, something I hadn’t been good at. I learned how to make dinners out of almost nothing, to make things like ranch dressing from scratch when I ran out of dressings, that pizza sauce could be made from tomatoes and basil if prepared the right way and most importantly to view it all as an adventure. With my newfound independence from the cookbook, the world of the culinary arts began to open up. I began to try new things and found out how much I liked making a dish without having to constantly scan a recipe. It was fun and I began to enjoy it.
By Christmastime of 2009, I was primed for the more significant event that turned me towards loving to cook. My mom gave me Julie Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and the movie Julie and Julia for me as a gift. We all watched the movie as a family and that night I sat poring over the cookbooks. I did not have the nerve to cook all the way through the books (the aspic section was too gross), but I started cooking from the book. And most importantly, I started LEARNING to cook. Every recipe is a lesson in some form of cooking and my knowledge increased, as did my food budget! But, I found that I loved it, plain and simple.
Many food writers go on and on about the chemistry of lots of ingredients becoming a cohesive whole and the satisfaction of seeing all the ingredients come together. I don’t really care about those things.
I love chopping things. When I’m really mad, it feels good to beat eggs or chop onions or stir my bread dough. When I’m tired, I like to watch onions turn slowly brown in hot oil and know how yummy that is going to make my foccacia bread. On most days, both good and bad, I find myself drifting towards the kitchen, often towards the end of the day. Soon the kitchen is covered in flour as I make bread, dessert or something as simple as pancakes. My brain goes somewhere happy while my hands are busy working and I leave the kitchen better for it. I don’t even mind it when things go horribly awry and I end up throwing out an entire recipe all the while giving a silent “I hear ya, sister” to Julie as she lay on her kitchen floor annoyed with yet another failed recipe. Even on my painful days, when my body aches, I’ll drag a high stool into the kitchen and sit curled up on it while I bake. I love opening the oven door and feeling the heat warm my face and arms as I reach in for a loaf of bread. I love how I feel when I am measuring, modifying, stirring, smelling and loving what I‘m doing. It’s just…good.
A new form of addiction has come out of cooking…the cooking supply store! We have several in Colorado Springs and I’ve managed to visit almost all of them. I hold off on going into a store until I really have the time to hang out for a while and absorb all the wonders inside. I find myself touching brioche pans and chocolate molds and double boilers with the same reverence a book collector would view a first edition collection of Shakespeare. I browse all the shelves wondering what someone could possibly need with a silver plated deviled egg platter, but mostly really wanting to take the entire store home with me! It would be so fun to have some of those cool gadgets and pans and cool new toys!
Now, after almost a year of really enjoying to cook, I’ve discovered other benefits. No matter how beautiful the rest of my house is, the kitchen is where all guests end up. I’ve had some amazing conversations while I stood at the stove. There is something very cathartic about the smell of bread or cookies and that often opens the floodgates of emotions. I’ve laughed, cried and hugged people who have been in desperate need of encouragement. And, I get to feed them good food after the emotions have calmed a little.
One of those important conversations happened recently with my friend Becky. She was watching me chop green peppers and I got talking about how much I loved what I was doing. In her unerring way of taking my two thousand words and boiling them down to one phrase, she said simply, “Cooking is how you say ‘I love you’”. In the bustle of making lunch for twenty people, it didn’t sink in until later when she grinned at me over her plate and said, “I love you too, Mary”.
So, next time you visit my house and I cook you a five course meal, don’t ask me what the occasion is. Just know that I’m saying, “I love you and I’m glad you’re here!”