I’m not sleeping very well, and I can guess why. International moves are not easy at the best of times, and a pandemic is a far cry from the best of times!
It’s an adventure, they say. A story to tell your grandchildren! I have all sorts of cynical responses to that. It certainly is an adventure, but so far not quite the one I had hoped it would be.
But life is like that, isn’t it? And that’s why life is a journey. If we could sit over a cup of coffee and write the whole thing before even starting, there really wouldn’t be much point.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, which I find fulfilling, relaxing, and a productive way of maintaining a sense of control over my world. Along with this, I’ve also been leafing through my cookbooks and rereading my notes. My mum taught me to annotate my recipes and so I have. My first attempt at making something and how it went, changes to ingredients or methods, any special occasions or memories.
But what really makes me laugh, what makes me wish I could give my younger self a hug, are all the mentions of who was with me when I first tried different recipes. How many times did that person appear in the cookbook? And then what happened to them? My attempted love stories through cooking. And it makes me laugh because I remember purposely not writing in someone’s name because I didn’t think they’d be around that long (I was wrong) and I remember proudly doing just the opposite because I thought I’d found something meaningful (also wrong).
My oldest cookbooks are eleven years old and it’s wonderful to reflect upon myself through them. The notes remind me how far I’ve come as a cook and how long it has been since I first made a recipe or got to know a particular person. Not only have my tastes, culinary skills, and cuisine interests changed significantly, but I have changed, too. I have to smile at the thought of what might be recorded in cookbooks to come.
Perhaps I’m feeling nostalgic because I’ve made the choice to conclude this chapter and I know what I’m leaving behind. I am not nearly as confident about what I am going toward. But that’s why they call it an adventure. And my future cookbooks will doubtless reflect the ride.
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.
This year, for the first time ever, I am not spending the summer with my family. In the past, much of this summertime has seen me with my mum playing together in the kitchen, but, unfortunately this cannot be. So for the moment, I’ve been sharing meals with friends and reflecting on times past.
I’ve written many times that if love is a verb, love requires action. This means behaving in ways that give love. We can show love in many ways, such as holding those who need holding, listening to those who are speaking, helping when help is needed, and giving of our time. Another way to show love, I deeply believe, is through cooking. A few years ago, my mum sewed me an apron embroidered with the words, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I think that sums it up.
In terms of cooking, there are two ways to show love: preparing food for others and preparing food with others.
In preparing food for others, the acts of chopping, slicing, dicing, washing, peeling, and whisking (to highlight just the tip of the iceberg) are not accidental – all are intentional. These acts require us to consider others and are the visible evidence of a desire to nourish, which is an act of care. Care in this context is a way to love.
Cooking for others may not involve the seeking of reciprocity. We prepare food that we think others will enjoy, and not with the purpose of raising ourselves in their eyes. So, when we sometimes cook for others in order to impress them, that is not an act of love. Preparing a meal for those in need, however, whether due to the demands that a joyous arrival of a newborn baby or the sorrow of a loss may bring, is something we do for those we care about – for those we love.
In such circumstances, when I cook for others out of love, my favorite meal to prepare is a hearty soup. (Admittedly, this is challenging in the tropics and I have modified my approach.) Soup is a meal that warms from the inside out and is filling, healthy, and tasty. It is simple to enjoy with no more than pepper and bread, and unpretentious with ingredients that are easy to find. There is love stirred into the soup pot.
In addition to showing love in the preparation of food for others, there is also cooking with others. When done with love, this can be analogous to an indoor version of running through the sprinkler on a hot day. It can be glorious or it can be a complete disaster (think thunderstorms and mud flung into eyes) but either way, if it is done with love, it ends in smiles and laughter.
Cooking with others is joyful and spirited. It is the creative interplay of working together, a fluid dynamic that involves trust and tolerance of another person. As my mum has said, “We dance the kitchen dance really well.” And yet, sometimes we get in each other’s way. This is when we take a step back and respect each other’s space, and this requires a significant degree of humility on our part, a willingness to simply let the other person be. We welcome their playfulness, their mistakes, and their laughter – because we do the same.
The kitchen dance, as I know it, is what I think walking hand in hand through the world might look like. It is beautiful and intricate in parts, yet it also requires the discipline to take on the responsibility that it brings. It is not simply preparing food but also caring for all parts of the journey; the sharpening and honing of knives, the clearing of counters, the washing of dishes, and the scrubbing of pots and pans, and finally, the clearing of the table. Together. Us. Rejoicing, frolicking.
A word of warning, however. It is important to recognise that there is a difference between two people working in a kitchen and combining food, and two people dancing in the kitchen and creating food. There is a synthesis of senses in the latter that may not exist in the former. There is a give-and-take between us as texture, taste, scent, and sight of the elements are explored. What I do now will influence the choices you make later. We bounce off and augment each other while incorporating individual creativity. Your taste and my taste guide the next element, the next move. We share as we explore, and in doing so laugh and love.
Playing in this way has led me to compose food that one would never find in recipe books. And in doing so I have found that not all of them merit repeating. But that isn’t what is important. What is meaningful, is that I have played with others in the kitchen and shared in the love that this brings. I will continue to cultivate and cherish those times and urge you and your loved ones to do the same.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place