Something’s cooking

In the last week or so, a number of things have conspired to get me thinking about cooking, that most delicious of arts.

First, I was asked recently to participate in a recipe exchange, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand, it’s just as annoying as any other e-mail exchange—I may appreciate receiving 36 new recipes, but I’m not so sure I would appreciate receiving 36 additional e-mails! (It’s too bad we don’t do these sorts of things by mail anymore; getting letters is always so much more fun…) On the other hand, the prospect of seeing what all of my friends are cooking is a difficult one to pass up, especially because many of my friends cook so well.

This has been made clear to me over time, but most recently at a couple of dinners I enjoyed with friends this past weekend. At the first one, my friend made a beautiful beef tenderloin, seasoned and roasted to perfection and complemented by asparagus, garlic red potatoes, and homemade bread. Another friend brought a sumptuous devil’s food cake for dessert. I assure you none of us moved for about an hour after that.

For the second dinner, a friend and I decided to get really creative and make butternut squash ravioli using a pasta press she had received from her mother. When I say that this was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while, I’ll trust you to spare me any allusion to my dwindling social life. The fun thing about this meal is that it was so hands-on: after kneading the pasta dough (which is much sturdier than something like pizza dough and requires a lot more effort), you slowly roll it through the pasta press, cut it into the appropriate shapes, and carefully fold together each little pocket before dropping it into the boiling water. We ate our ravioli with a brown butter sauce, and finished with a luxurious dessert of chocolate ganache.

Now, obviously not everyone can afford the time or money to cook this way all the time; we’re busy people, and while cooking may be a fun weekend activity for some, many would probably prefer to spend the weekend in other ways (i.e., sleeping). But I’ve actually found cooking to be the perfect sort of balance between work and play: it’s not so difficult that it’s truly taxing, but it does require creativity and careful thought. Whether peeling vegetables, chopping fruit, tenderizing meat, or kneading dough, the tactile aspect of working with food makes it therapeutic and relaxing—especially if you’re someone who spends most of the day on the phone or computer and not doing much with your hands. And the best part of the process comes at the end, when you and your friends are rewarded for your efforts with the sight, tastes, and smells of a delicious meal.

Cooking at home can also make for a great date, and (unless you do something really exorbitant) is usually much less expensive than going out. What could be nicer than starting the evening with a glass of wine, working together in the kitchen over a warm stove and simmering spices, and finally sitting down to enjoy a dinner of your own creation?

Of course, even a brief discussion of cooking would not be complete without acknowledging that it is not always enjoyable. In fact, it can often be a chore. This is especially true for parents with young children, since they have the duty of providing meals for the family every day. My grandmother had nine children and my mother had five, and there’s no time to be fancy when there are that many mouths to feed. In this sense, being able to enjoy cooking at all should be considered a luxury. No doubt this is why fast food and other quick fixes have become such a staple in many American families, although I’m not convinced that’s the right way to go (and climbing obesity statistics would back me up on that). For all the mothers and fathers out there just working to put food on the table, your task is far more meaningful than any of my kitchen experiments.

The one thing we have in common, though, is also probably the most fundamental satisfaction derived from cooking: the knowledge that through your effort, you filled the hungry stomach and awakened the dormant senses of someone about whom you care very much. At bottom, whether it’s fun and exciting for you or not, cooking is always an act of sharing and therefore an act of love.

Whether it’s tournedos rossini or a simple grilled cheese sandwich, preparing food is one of the kindest and most thoughtful gifts you can give to someone, and is always something in which you should take great pride. And if you’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end of such a labor of love, make sure to thank your host—even if s/he cooks for you every day. If you’ve done it, you know how difficult it can be—and if you haven’t, you’re either incredibly well taken care of or really missing out…

… or both!

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