I learned to cook when I was very little, or at least that how I remember it. Jewish holidays revolve around food and my mum would involve me and my sister and brother in the preparation process as much as possible. It undoubtedly would have been less work and less time consuming to do it herself, but this gave us a sense of pride, accomplishment, and belonging as children. We had “our dish” that we would prepare each year, slowly growing in independence as we grew older. We had children’s cookbooks and children’s Jewish holiday cookbooks, and we knew how to use them.
These experiences were foundational in the way I developed as a cook. I grew so accustomed to going through my mum’s recipe file, the large collection of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines over the years, that it was not uncommon for her to call when I moved out of the house for university to ask which category something was filed under. My mother’s filing system works best in her own head and requires interpreters when activated in the real world. For instance, “All kinds of burgers but not meat” is a category, and so are “Miscellaneous deliciousness” and “Mexican”. So where, I ask, would you find a recipe for a Mexican black bean burger with mango salsa? Well, it depends. Is the defining feature that it is a black bean burger, that the salsa is likely delicious, or that is is Mexican? Guess correctly and you have found your recipe.
I’ve moved a lot as an adult and finding a workable kitchen has been the most important feature of any place I’ve ever lived. Malaysia was particularly memorable in this way. I lived in a hotel room for four months and turned the desk, bathroom sink, and mini fridge into a working kitchen in order to prepare salads, for example, which are a staple of my diet and not found in a country that lacks clean water and is prone to food-borne pathogens. I’ve worked with a two-burner stove and no oven, four-burner stove and toaster oven, “apartment sized” stovetop and oven, and full sized kitchens. And the point is that it works. If you want to cook, you make it work.
And I have always wanted to cook.
More than many other pursuits, cooking brings me to a place where I am centered. I find a sense of calm and belonging, a sense of home. Growing up, cooking was communal, joyful, relaxing, and a source of pleasure and conversation. This is still what I find. It is a place for solace and creativity, to activate the senses, to turn something into something else. When my life is spinning out of control, when I can’t understand my own thoughts, when I don’t know where to go or who to turn to, I refocus when I am cooking. It doesn’t matter whether I’m following a recipe, and it doesn’t matter which ingredients I’m using or how long it takes. There is something deeply satisfying in taking many parts and bringing them together into a whole. There is something soothing in the washing, preparing, sautéing or frying, grilling or roasting, and in mixing, stirring, tasting, seasoning. Wash up at the end, dry and put away the crockery, spray and wipe down the work surfaces. One more satisfied look around. The world makes sense again.
I noticed this tendency, my turning to the kitchen when in need of balance, after a really difficult day with a friend once upon a time. We didn’t fight but we argued and I was drained, exhausted, angry, and afraid by the end of it. When I got home, the first thing I did was heat up a grill pan. I sliced and seasoned eggplant and zucchini, and I had them on the hot pan before even taking a moment to have a glass of water or consider taking a shower. Once the vegetables were done, I could breathe again. The world had reformed into a shape that I knew, and I again understood who I was and how to be.
In many ways, I cook the way my mother taught me. Follow the recipe (more or less) with the understanding that the ingredients are suggestions, the method and preparation depend on the amount of time and effort you actually want to put in, and you only have to measure when baking, which is why it just makes more sense to cook rather than bake, although gingersnaps are just as delicious without ginger. There’s no such thing as too much pepper, herbs and spices exist to be used, garlic makes everything taste better, and even if you have “nothing in the fridge”, a good meal just takes a sense of fun . And cooking with my mum means reading the recipe and the notes on the side of the recipe, asking her what she actually wants me to do, and then doing it my own way, which is similar to watching her cook with my grandmother.
This love of cooking has made it possible to find a place where I feel at home everywhere I have lived. Once I know my way around a new kitchen, I know everything will be okay. I write this mere months from moving to a new country and I’ve seen photos of what will be my new kitchen. I don’t love it but I know it will work. It always has, and it has always given me what I need. Working in the kitchen provides nourishment in more ways than in body, and everything is easier after a good meal.