It’s a beautiful early summer Sunday afternoon. I’ve returned to the house to help with the dinner preparation after having frolicked all morning outside. It is just beginning to get hot these days and the grass and flowers in the orchard are starting to dry, lending a comforting hay-like fragrance to the air. My energy is hard to contain as I bounce about the kitchen, grabbing this and that, and handing it to my favorite chef, my daddy.
“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?. . .The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” — M.F.K. Fisher
He’d ask me to calm down and stop jumping in his slow, smooth, calm voice and to, “please hand me salt now, darling,” his patience unwavering. We’d lean over the countertop and form little dough dumplings together while I excitedly recounted my eventful morning in the sun before dropping them into the hot broth boiling with chicken on the stove. Some adjustments here, some extra spice there, and before long we’d spoon the resulting soup into bowls to serve to the family. He’d announce to the table what a great cook I was without any mention of the fact that it was he who had done all the cooking (no mention was needed–I was 6 years old) and I would beam with pride. This scene, as it is, has never left my memory and bubbles up again with every pot of boiling broth, every bite into a dumpling, be it matzo balls or the Bisquick-dough chicken and dumplings of my childhood. My father, although he passed away almost 18 years ago, lives on in that memory.
I can’t bring back the dead, nor can I time-travel, but every time I miss him or want something that simply can’t be, I can evoke that feeling again by tying on my apron, pulling out a dusty recipe card, and getting to work. If I miss my grandmothers, they are just a country-style gravy (“Mama,” as I called her, was a true Southern belle) or a poppyseed pound cake (“Gram”, however, was Mid-Western) away. Perhaps memories are the afterlife, a legacy. Similarly, I can go back to bonfires at the old orchard with our Mexican neighbors or travel to far away places such as the Middle-East, even if I have never stepped foot on that soil.
Food is sensual–it is easy to get stuck on how it tastes when we eat, but a lot of things come into play: visual aspects, the smell as you bring it up to your mouth, the texture and mouthfeel, flavor, and even how it feels as it escapes down your throat on its path to nourish your body, but it certainly can whisk us away to a comforting memory or an exotic locale. It can bring you back to grandma’s kitchen, to your childhood home.
I cook to feel, to experience, and to show love. I cook because my father taught me to feel pride in a good meal made, in feeding those we love. I cook because I long to return to those early summer afternoons, my muscles still twitching from running at full speed up and down the dirt road on which I grew up. But most of all, I cook because I am hungry, like anyone else.
I wonder, why do you cook? As you cook, please consider what memories led you to do so, or perhaps what priorities, such as feeding your lovely family a nourishing meal. It can be a wonderful question to ponder while stirring your pasta that your grandmother taught you to add a little salt to the water to help keep it from sticking or when you squeeze the hell out of your potatoes before making the latkes your mother taught you must be devoid of moisture before they hit the sizzling frying pan. I challenge you to come up with an answer to the question, “why?” this next time you cook and, if you feel inclined to do so, please share in the comments or link back to this post in your own post telling your story.