Cooking is an act of love

Cooking is an act of love

While we push our way through our lives, trying to produce the dreamy outcomes of our young years, life happens around us. One day you look up from the dusty road underfoot, the one you’ve trod for decades paying bills, attending seminars, changing the oil and collecting the detritus, which our children eye with dread, and you aren’t at all where you thought you’d be. Back there, somewhere, you took a turn and didn’t notice, and here you are.

Somehow, while I was reading about the things I love — architecture, antiques, cars, history, world religions, music, that sort of thing — I inadvertently became a book collector.

I’m realizing food and cooking have been one of the main threads of my life, replacing the things I thought I cared most about.

Through the 1990s when I was unable to carry on doing community theater, I cooked instead. I also built furniture and fences and potting sheds, figured out carburetors and timing belts, planted trees and cut down bushes, and watched my daughters grow.

Between, there was a lot of cooking: the Easter crown roast, the crab boil in the backyard, the paella in summer, the corned beef in fall. I had an inexhaustible desire to learn and get better.

Slowly coming into focus is a new understanding of all this, of life and how food has been such a big part of it. I can’t point to a big, noisy Italian family with scolding aunts because that wasn’t my childhood.

There was one aunt who was an amazing baker, but I didn’t spend much time with her and she was quite quiet. We were a small family, and we ate the same kinds of casseroles and quick after-work meals most other families did. But I watched Mom cook, and I watched Julia cook on television, and as soon as I felt old enough to ask to do it, I started cooking at home.

I’ve become emotionally attached to stories of people who create food and ingredients with little reward, people who do it because they want to. It’s like when my wife asks, “Do you love me?” and I answer “yes,” and she asks “why?” and I answer “because I can do no other.” People do these crazy, back-breaking, low-pay tasks because they could honestly do nothing else.

I saw a story about two dairy farmers who raised their small, every-cow-has-a-name herd on a tiny farm, turned the milk from their cows into numerous cheeses and sold it at markets around their farm.

There are immigrants from Asia who wring everything out of their lives except the quest for growing small batches of perfect rice, which they sell fresh. Rice has a limited shelf life, and much of what we get in stores from commercial sources dried out beyond saving months ago. From this couple you get fresh rice, meant to be enjoyed right away. They grow it because they must.

There are the students who spend nerve-wracking years learning about wines so they can survive the horror show of testing and certification in their specialty.

In the best restaurants, the food we are served is the result of weeks of planning, sourcing, researching and testing.

What is the common thread running through all this? It is love.

I’ve been active in the arts in some way for all of my adult life. I’ve spoken with artists young and old as their faces lit up while telling me of their work and what it means to them. I’ve spent many tipsy, smoky hours trading backstage stories and pitilessly picking apart scripts and playwrights with actors middling and great. I once interviewed a man who spent lakes of time decorating emu eggs so they looked like jewels.

I think cooks, passionate cooks, are artists who have so much love they don’t know where to put it, more so than any other pursuit. Cooking, an act of creating as old as fire, brings out the best in us. It’s love of family and friends. It’s the squishy childhood memories we cling to and the smells that transport us.

You reach a place where you realize you are breathing rarefied air shared with the voices, fires and knives of millennia of others — Jewish slaves 2,000 years ago, African slaves 200 years ago, Italian immigrants, Mexican grandmothers and Korean aunties. Cooking is an act of love, and I see now my life has been filled with that love, and I’m grateful.

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