My Food Warms Me Three Times
I thought yesterday of the old woodsman’s adage, “My wood warms me twice. Once when I cut it and again when I burn it.” I was enjoying a frittata I’d just made with my neighbor’s eggs, onions from my garden and a few anywhere ingredients like coconut oil and salt, when I cocked my head and listened in on my chattering mind. This is what I heard. “You aren’t appreciating this enough! Think of how hard you worked to cook it. Think of how much work your neighbor put in to those eggs.”
Suddenly I’m on Long Island, seven years old, sitting in our family breakfast nook, built to look like a bird-cage and painted to match our parakeet, ashamed because I’d ruined my appetite, a “slap in my mother’s face” (as she would say) after “all her hard work in the kitchen.”
My mother would turn 101 this week if she hadn’t had a weak heart and died at 62. Yet here I am unconsciously slathering my breakfast with Jewish guilt.
Whoa! Back up. What do I, now 70 not 7, think and feel about this food before me?
First, it’s delicious. The eggs are egg-y. Enough paeans have been written about orange-yoked eggs from pastured hens to fill 10 Gourmet magazines, so I can simply comment on how rich their flavor honestly is. The onions were sharp. The coconut oil brought a bit of the tropics home (I was in Brazil again last month). Yes, it was very good. Had there been someone to chat with across the breakfast table I might have taken longer to eat it, but the level of appreciation would have been about the same.
Cooking it, I realized, was a second pleasure. I didn’t just cook it to eat it. I cooked it because I actually like to cook. My month-long 10-mile diet in September 2010, recounted in Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, put me in a different relationship with cooking. Faced with only whole ingredients and only what my farmer, Tricia, provided plus my 4 exotics – oil, salt, caffeine and lemons – I had to heighten my awareness of what would turn the food before into meals I’d enjoy. What does a turnip do when roasted? Boiled? Grated into a salad? Same with the onion, the cabbage, the carrot. How many ways can I put these together with the churned butter, raw milk, eggs and bit of goat cheese in my fridge to make varied dishes?
Cooking is creativity now. It’s the feel of my body chopping, it’s knowing from the smell when roast veggies are done, it’s the oregano, rosemary, parsley and thyme from my garden, crushed or minced or bundled into a soup or rubbed on a chicken. It’s the tasting, squinting into the flavor with my intuition sending my hand for the honey or the lemon or the salt to deepen or sharpen the final blend. Even if I never ate the food, cooking itself would be a pleasure.
Cooking is not just to eat. It’s to cook. Sometimes when stumped on a problem I’ll go into the kitchen and start turning something from the fridge into a meal I might actually put in the freezer for weeks later.
My age puts me in the vanguard of young women who took off aprons and bras to express our liberation. Leave the cooking to Betty Crocker – or our mothers chained to their stoves and subservient roles. I, for one, learned auto mechanics and home building to stand on more empowered ground. So admitting that I love to cook not as a gourmet or foodie but as a way to relax and to paint with flavors takes a bit of eating… humble pie.
Then I realized that a separate but connected pleasure of this food was the growing it or shopping for it. Planting the onions last year was fun. I’m a sloppy gardener. I stick seeds and starts in the ground and take care of them, but so what about a few failures or a few plants gone to the birds, rabbits or deer. These onions grew enough to eat. Not so big I’d enter them in the County Fair, but good enough for a frittata. To get the eggs I’d visited my neighbor, had a conversation about her life, my life and our friends’ changing fortunes. That feeling of belonging warms my whole viscera, not just my heart.
Even shopping at my local super market stocked with more than 99% “anywhere food” warms me because I am grateful that in my community there’s a store where I can get toilet paper, bananas, 500 different kinds of bulk items, crackers, and that coconut oil and salt for the frittata.
Every part of my frittata – the shopping, the cooking and the eating – is filled with pleasure in of itself. I don’t shop just to have stuff to cook. The shopping warms me. I don’t cook just to have something to eat. The cooking warms me. And I don’t eat just to survive. The pleasures of the flavors and textures and of the chewing and swallowing and of the satisfaction and fullness all warm me.