A Truly Reluctant Cook

A few weeks back, during my brief re-engagement with cooking, my counterpart asked me why I wanted to cook anyway. I'm not particularly good at it, I don't make a full effort at it, so why do I bother? I spoke a bit about how good it feels at the end of a long, hard day to come home and smell dinner in progress. I love that he consistently prepares dinner for me. It makes me feel valued and loved. So, when his workload increased, I wanted to give some of that back to him.

He explained that I was looking at the thing all wrong, seeing it as a duty I could relieve him from - a chore. He cooks because he truly enjoys the act itself, from seeking out new ingredients to mastering new cuisines, his cooking is about the process, while mine is about the result. Or, more often, appreciation for the result. Until I find enjoyment in the process, my cooking will always come up short.

This certainly gave me something to think about. I still venture into the kitchen to cook. I still feel as if I should be able to put a passable meal together when asked. But none of that has to do with actually learning how to cook.

Then I picked up a copy of chef Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. I picked it up for the subtitle, hoping it would be just that. It isn't. She isn't reluctant at all. And her education only appears to be inadvertent on the surface. From her childhood with a French mother to her travels across Europe to the opening of her own restaurant and her recognition as one of the best chefs in New York, Hamilton embraces food and cooking all along the way.

Starting in her mother's kitchen, she is exposed to the French way of cooking and learns to use everything - the entire animal, the entire vegetable - everything. She also learns that food is the universal language of comfort and currency of employment. She cooks her way through Europe after her money runs out, and, while surviving for days at a time without eating, acquires a great appreciation for the simplest of meals. Even the assembly-line cooking of the New York catering scene doesn't diminish her underlying belief that good food is the foundation of a good life. At one point, when she is short on food and sleep, and her blood sugar is crashing, she refuses to stop for a meal at a place that offers free mimosas, certain that this gimmick is a reflection of the quality of food they serve.

The passages about her vacations in Italy are the strongest passages in the book. She and her in-laws use food preparation to bridge the language barriers and form their relationship along this activity - feeling each other out, learning basic personality traits by working together to feed the rest of the family.

In reading the book, Hamilton's feigned reluctance provided a new perspective on my genuine reluctance. Through her eyes and her writing, I felt a desire to do what she was doing with her mother-in-law during her summers in Italy - finding new, fresh foods to try and devoting the whole of the day to preparing food.

Gareth is right - for most of my life, I have had no real desire to learn how to cook. It was a chore for my mother, and, I suspect (despite her reputation but because of her liberal use of pre-packaged conveniences like canned and frozen food) a chore for her mother also. But that's not really what it's about at all. And the best food comes from people who love to cook, and people who love to cook intrinsically understand that meals aren't just to feed the body, they are also too feed the spirit and the soul. The loss of family dinners and the replacement of sit-down meals with restaurant take-out or frozen, pre-made dinners is the loss of something more valuable than good nutrition and our national health. It's the loss of our connection to each other - as a family eating dinner, as a community providing meat and produce, and as a country with our own distinctive cuisine as a mark of our culture and character.

I want to embrace these things. I want to hold on to them and share them with those I love. I think they are important. And now I think I am ready to learn how to cook.