Song of the moment: Time After Time Ella Fitzgerald
There is nothing in life as sensual, pleasurable, and satisfying as cooking. It’s this beautiful balance between chemistry and magic, between science and art. It’s a dance around a kitchen. It’s a song created by scent, bars and scales unfurling through the house.
No matter how bad my day/week/month/year has been, I can find solace in a well-stocked kitchen, with the time to devote to one of my favorite “domestic” tasks. I would argue against the domesticity of cooking, however, because unlike the typical household chores that share the title of “domestic,” cooking is not confined to simply making a household run smoothly. Cooking serves such a wide variety of purposes, it ends up removing itself from the well-worn label of “domestic.”
Food is one of the few shared experiences of all people, though not necessarily in type and availability. It’s something that we all can appreciate and share, because we all need food. There’s a saying that goes the human body can go three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Roughly speaking, that’s accurate enough. The human body can only go for a short period of time without proper nourishment, and insufficient food intake can lead to a wealth of health problems (aside from the obvious death), including anemia and the ever-dreaded (if you are me) scurvy.
But food is about more than merely sustaining the body. Everything has flavor, and our absolutely amazing bodies have in place a complex system to distinguish each individual flavor. You might be aware that, on your tongue (and less-commonly known areas like the epiglottis and soft palate), you have tiny chemoreceptors (referred to as taste buds) that serve as the primary players in the gustatory process. Contrary to common belief (and my first grade science teacher), there isn’t an actual “tongue map,” with different flavors mapping to specific areas of the tongue. Fact of the matter is, all areas of the tongue can distinguish the six primary types of flavors: sweet, bitter, savory, salty, spicy, and sour.
Fun fact: You can go bald on your tongue! Because the gustatory cells end in a fine hair, individuals with genetic balding have been found to experience loss of taste sensation 78% of the time. Weird, no?
With this delicate, sensitive system in place to detect flavor, our consumption of food becomes more than a necessity- it becomes a pleasure. This is where cooking becomes the art it truly is. Where the layering of spices, textures, and flavors creates a symphony for those little taste buds.
I love food. More than that, I love cooking. I always have. When I was young, my grandmother taught me to bake. One of my earliest memories with her has me with my hands in a batch of cookies, learning how to knead the dough while she poured the chips in. I remember that waterfall of chocolate spilling into the green ceramic bowl, settling down around my tiny hands and the pale, sweet dough. I remember her large, wrinkled hands reaching into the bowl, disturbing the swells of chocolate to guide my inexperienced fingers in the mixture, teaching me how to properly combine the ingredients.
In me, my grandmother found a student of the kitchen arts. Christmas and Thanksgiving became magical times- every year, I was taught more. We started small, with the basics. I cut vegetables, mashed potatoes, stuffed the turkey. Soon, I was making the stuffing, creating meringue, making fudge. I began to take over more and more of the preparations, adding my own twists to family recipes. In some cases, I even tossed out what I had learned, deciding instead to improvise and experiment. My chocolate chip cookie recipe is a well-guarded secret known only to me, though everybody who’s ever tried them has tried to weasel it out of me (and don’t you dare tell me your mother’s/grandmother’s cookies are better- everybody who’s ever said that has, upon trying mine, renounced their former cookie loyalties and backed the side of awesome).
Cooking, for me, has become one of the most fulfilling, comforting ways to spend my time. There’s a perfect satisfaction in the knowledge that every time I mix these ingredients together in these amounts and cook them in this manner, the end result will be the same. There’s also something wonderfully… magical, or perhaps alchemical, in cooking. I love the transmutation of individual ingredients into something new.
Additionally, cooking is a beautifully solitary pursuit. Multiple people in my kitchen tend to muddle things up. I work best when it’s just me, the food, and some smooth jazz (it’s always jazz when I cook- slow and sensual). But then I get to share the food, and my solitary activity is transformed into a social gathering. Meals are an event, with noise and conversation and shared delight. I love the dichotomy of it all- it plays so well to the opposing sides of my personality.
Ideally, some day, I’ll find someone who enjoys eating food as much as I enjoy preparing it. Someone who will encourage and enjoy my experimentation and creations. A man who doesn’t just eat, but who honestly loves food. Who can admire a complex, well-made dish.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, it’s been said. And that’s true. The good ones savor, chewing slowly, investigating the flavors. It’s not just about eating, it’s about experiencing. I like those people. They are the ones I love to cook for.
Because art should be shared.