23 May 12

To Cook With Love

It’s been years since I first heard this phrase, and it resonated with me and struck me as confusing at the same time. And reading about cooking, and food, and people who cook, a people who write about cooking, it is a phrase that comes up all the time. If Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain (let alone Gordon Ramsey) can all use the phrase unironically and in the same way, then there must be something to it. But what does it really mean? And how has it’s meaning changed, for me, as I’ve become a better cook and been exposed to more thoughts around cooking.

When I was very younger, I used to love baking. I would beg my mother to let me make cookies and cobblers and cakes. I loved how important I felt standing on the small step stool at the counter, with my mother’s well-loved and well-worn Pillsbury cookbook propped up against the wall at the back of the counter where it would hopefully escape most of my childhood clumsiness. I felt so official sifting flour, measuring things in such tiny precise amounts. And then I became a teenager and my mother started working outside our home, and it became my responsibility to come home after school and prep dinner so it was on the table between 5 and 5:30 every night for a family of 5.

My mother did the menu planning, and she understood my interest wasn’t in it and therefore my skills were rather paltry, and that I was a teenager, so she thought up a lot of dishes to put in the crockpot so that I would only have to come home and make biscuits and warm up a can of green beans and we’d be set for dinner most nights. But after several years of this, and a few “When I was your age I was cooking dinner for my family every night from scratch” conversations, the dishes she would choose slowly became more vague and less planned. I think she was hoping that I would “take some initiative” and do things on my own. But I rarely did. And when I did, it would be baking cinnamon rolls or making homemade bagels or other things that seemed “fun”.

I was a horrible cook during this time. I didn’t love it, and it showed. Pasta would stick together because I would be too busy reading “Dear Abby” while the spaghetti boiled to stir it. Things would frequently get a little burnt, or just be a little bland because I didn’t think to taste things to make sure they were good, nor did I really know enough about how to determine what needed more of what to adjust seasonings on the fly.

Then I moved out of my parents house and realized I didn’t know how to cook for 1 person. I just couldn’t imagine how it was to be done. So I followed the lead of friends and bought super-cheap individual sized frozen pizzas, and Rice-A-Roni (which I had never had before), boxed mac’n‘cheese, and ramen noodles. And I felt like a college student, and therefore a grown-up. And about three months into this diet I got so incredibly bored I couldn’t fathom it. I’d come home from class one drizzly March day and looked at my supply of baking potatoes (which I’d recently learned could be cooked in the microwave) and decided that I wanted my mom’s potato soup. It was something she always cooked in the crock-pot and at the end of the day I would stir in a can of evaporated milk and mash the potatoes a bit.

So even though I had never made it, and even though there was no recipe for it in the 2 cookbooks I owned (Betty Crocker and a Pizza cookbook from Williams Sonoma a roommate gave me) I decided I could make this up on my own. So I chopped an onion and cooked it in some butter (most likely margarine, because that was what I was used to). While it cooked and softened I decided that I needed salt, pepper, and garlic powder to be my seasonings. So I pulled these things out and lined them up on the counter. I then peeled the potatoes and cubed them before I added it to a pan with barely enough water to cover. I added the onion, sprinkled what I thought were enough seasonings over the top, and I let the potatoes cook with the lid off until they were very soft. Then I mashed them with the bottom of a drinking glass, because I had no masher. I had no milk, but I did have part of a carton of sour cream and decided that was close enough. I stirred that in. And then I tasted a small bite after I’d stirred very thoroughly. I needed more salt and pepper. I added, and then tasted it again. And it was good. It was really good. And I ate a huge bowl, and then another. And I felt happy. And I felt loved.

I made something for myself and myself only, and I remember feeling loved. Part of it was because it was a dish that I remembered my mother making for me, but most of it was that I felt nourished and I enjoyed taking very simple ingredients and turning them into something basic and delicious. It was surprising to find myself enjoying that I was cooking. And because I enjoyed it, and because I liked what I made, and because it was easy, I began to do it more.

I began to enjoy cooking for myself and I began to enjoy cooking for my roommates and occasionally friends. I gradually picked random dishes to learn to cook. There were many “it’s Friday night and I have a paper to write, perhaps I’ll make refried beans from scratch” instances. And each time I cooked something, I got less scared of the idea of cooking, and I learned to enjoy it more and more. And the more I enjoyed it, the more I decided to cook things I’d never eaten before.

I developed a love of cooking. It wasn’t something I’d always had, it was something I developed slowly as I felt elevated by my successes with food. It was something I grew into, not something I was born with. But it is something that has grown stronger as I’ve aged. And it is something that I’ve felt the need to share with others, to convince others who are skeptical, that cooking food can be a way to show love to people you care about.

And that seems obvious, right? I mean grandma baking 30 varieties of Christmas cookies and smiling as her children and grandchildren and neigbors weigh their options before choosing the cookie that matches their desires. This is an obvious way that a grandma (or someone like a grandma) is able to tell someone they care about them. Someone making a roasted chicken and smiling as dinner guests eat their first bite, is another example.

But since you know the person eating the food, it is easy to cook with love. How do you cook with love when you don’t know the person eating the food you’re preparing? Since a line cook never even sees the family eating the potatoes that were lovingly roasted and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and a dash of parsley, so how can that cook possibly cook with love? Is a cook like a prostitute? Doing something that makes the customer feel loved, while staying emotionally reserved themselves? Or is it the other way around? Is the line cook more likely to be the one cooking and loving while the eater chews mindlessly on the perfectly respectable potato while laughing and talking the loved ones sitting at their table?

In this relationship, how is food cooked with love? How does a line cook cook with love? This is the part that I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with. I’ve always said that I would hate being a professional cook, because I don’t like cooking for strangers. Cooking for people I know and care about is what I truly enjoy. And I think professional chefs cook with more love when cooking for people they know than cooking for strangers. But this doesn’t mean that cooking for strangers is always loveless cooking. I think a professional cook is able to cook with love even when cooking for a stranger. It is possible to care for people you don’t know. Don’t we all? Even though I know only a few Chicago Public Schools students, I care that they have teachers and libraries and librarians and healthy food and a safe space to learn and grow. My job requires me to pay attention to details, and those details make it slightly easier for students at a variety of school districts to learn easier. I use InDesign with love. Why can’t a cook do the same thing?

A cook can show love by verifying that each pan is clean at the end of a shift and ready to be used the next day as fresh as possible. A cook can show love for an anonymous patron by making sure to remove every bit of useable celery from each stalk, and saving the leaves to become part of a stock later on. A cook can show love by trimming just the fat from a steak, instead of trimming and wasting meat. A cook can show love by learning and knowing exactly when that pork chop needs to flip so each side is cooked exactly the same. By showing love for the ingredients, and continuing that love during the process of cooking, a cook or a chef shows love with each action or inaction.

And these are the types of expressions of love where a professional cook shows love with more ease than the average home cook. Because professional cooks do the same thing over and over and over until they have the technique down perfectly and as the technique improves, so does the speed. For a professional cook, it is possible to separate chicken wing segments in seconds, instead of a home cook who slices lightly, and then tests, and then slices and then tests, and then slices, etc. So professional chefs are able to show love to more people during any given period of time because of their experience. But a home cook is able to show more love to a few people even if they don’t do everything perfectly.

But it is possible for professional chefs to cook without love and for home cooks to cook without love as well. So the best way to cook with love, for anyone, is to enjoy each step of the process, even if you don’t like it. I hate cleaning pans, for example. But I love picking up a pan that is spotlessly clean and placing newly chopped ingredients into it. The secret to cooking well, is to pay attention to each step of the process, each ingredient that goes into a dish. Simply being aware. Cooking with love, is simply cooking with care for the ingredients, for the process, for the final outcome. Caring about the quality of the final product is cooking with love.

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