I had been feeling a certain sense of resentment that I had become a utilitarian cook. After 30 years of preparing meals for my family almost every day, I was feeling a bit like a short order meal machine. The people in my house had no idea how close they were to total anarchy, every time they asked “what are we eating.” What used to be a total joy and an artistic release for me, had become a chore, like cleaning grout or waxing floors. I was experiencing a cooking meltdown that would bring me to tears many days. Then one day I saw a plaque at a gift shop that said simply, ”love to cook; cook to love.”
I bought it. It reminded me, like God was whispering in my ear, that my love of pulling together ingredients was a gift, and a legacy. Gifts should never be taken lightly. It made me smile instantly.
It also reminded me that the ability to get up in the morning and decide what I want to cook, and making it happened, is a privilege. My grandparents raised their children during the Great Depression. I don’t have much knowledge of how they put food on the table, or what they pieced together for their four children every day. But I can guess that having lived through it shaped their sense of plenty—and it showed up in the pot, and on the table years later. Both great cooks, they’d sit in the morning and ask, “what do you feel like eating today?” It is a different question I now understand than the, gnawing, entitled whines of two kids who have defiled my empty nest, “what are you going to cook,” or “what are we supposed to eat.” Their question was more a response to living without. Their answer was a declaration that they could now have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. It was their slice of affluence.
It is one of the legacies I brought with me into my marriage. And it has been a joy that has pulled me through the best of times and the worst of times. To go to the farmer’s market and get what’s looking good to you that day, or to do a good old fashioned meat loaf has always brought me comfort and pride. Both because I could, and because I could do these things really well. And because I know in my essence, that slowing down to be present in cutting vegetables, or kneading a dough that will become a beautiful hot batch of rolls is more than utility, it is a gift to those you love. I had forgotten that, especially as the kids got older and got these opinions about what they will and won’t eat — even after I cooked it.
I travel a lot now on assignment, so I don’t even get to cook as much. On the road, I grab nasty airport food, or in the evenings I get to experiment with some of the best restaurants in the world. The ones that make the most marked impression on me bring good home-style cooking with the freshest ingredients to the table. Whether at a friend’s house enjoying home cooking, or at a great restaurant, there is something that you just don’t get with a bucket of chicken. There is that moment when the chatter stops and there is silence, maybe even the collective moan of appreciation. It comes when somebody who prepared it, lovingly selecting ingredients, and got low and slow to bring it to you.
Most families have scheduled themselves so tightly. Some to chase the bigger house, bigger job, or the right social activities. Some to work two or three jobs to just make ends meet. For many, a good home-cooked meal comes in a microwave safe package, or a box or bag. After seeing that little plaque I was reminded that cooking is not just about love, but it is also about changing the pace. I can jump off the treadmill and say, I think I want to make a pound cake, or to start a pot of gumbo that will take all day to simmer slow. I can get off the grid to go shop mindfully for everything I need. I can put the rest of the “stuff” on pause and get in the kitchen with a stockpot, a mixer—whatever it takes. When I cook, I control the pace. The deadlines are mine. I breathe, I sing. And when I cook, I pray, or meditate. I center, much in the way runners do.
Over the past year, I have learned to my horror that I am a food elitist. I approach food and cooking the way I do because I can. I have a car to go get what I want. I don’t have to stay in the neighborhood and buy rank fruit, or bad bread from a party store. I can afford to eat local and organic. Most days I work at home, so I can spend hours in the kitchen if I choose to. I am aware that poor people, both urban and rural are doing all they can to get by. They don’t have my choices or my resources.
Some are people who grow my food, and get it to places where I can buy it, and who ring it up. There is a woman who works in my favorite grocery store. She like me, is a woman of color. She asked me if I was a cook for someone else. I explained that it was just for my family of four, and a few friends coming over for dinner. By the look on her face, I could tell that I boggled her mind. As she asked me for my money, she said, “one day I’m going to be able to feed my kids like that.” She said it in the way that I say, “One day I am going to be an Oprah book club selection,” or “one day the kids are going to move into their own places.” It reminded me that I am one blessed cook.