Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why Cooks Are Terrible (Loving) People

In her latest post Suzanne links to an interview in the film 24 Preludes for a Fugue, where the composer Arvo Pärt explains the philosophy behind his piece Für Alina:

He says: "I had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower...a blade of grass has the status of a flower."

Inspired by the grace and loving simplicity of Pärt's approach to music Suzanne writes:

"His music shows us that simple need not imply a lack of complexity; accessible is not a synonym for lack of depth. Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other...Timing and rhythm are essential. Mood is important. What you did that day. The music you’re listening to or the TV in the background. The sounds and smells floating in the background..."

This passage speaks to me: it strikes my heart, of course, as a cook, But it also strikes my heart as a human being. To think, each ingredient, each moment, is utterly important! This is the meal I always envision, the life I want to live.

The French poet Robert Desnos writes:

There is a precise instant in time
When a man reaches the exact center of his life,
A fraction of a second,
A fugitive particle of time quicker than a glance,
More fleeting than lover's bliss,
Faster than light,
And a man is awake to this moment

I chase this moment, ceaselessly, passionately, and often, recklessly. I strike out each day, each meal, each moment, in search of satisfaction, delight, and perfection.

In the realm of food, my chase often ends in the sublime. I'm an obsessive lunatic about ingredients. I'll drive all over town searching for the perfect parsnips. I'll drive an hour out of my way to buy a certain loaf of bread from a certain baker. I buy my Gala apples at one place and my Cameo apples at another. I work, for the love of god, at a famously well-stocked grocery store: Whole Foods Market. And yet, I'll leave work and drive somewhere else for my vegetables. I need the best, the most tasty, the most local (and unfortunately, usually the most expensive) food.

I know, there's madness in this. There's also a certain level of elitism. I refuse good food in favor of better food, I know, because I rank food in degrees of betterness and I convince myself I need the best. Really, I just want it. And this attitude leads, inevitably, to a certain, uncompromising plunge into economic insolvency. I have bills to pay. I don't care, I'd rather spend my money on raw butter. I'll never care, really.

I love what happens when you obsess over food. You meet strange, delicious people. You find yourself in odd places, full of good smells. You find yourself trudging through mud, in pursuit of berries. You get your hands sticky with all sort of goo. You stain everything. To me, this is simply part of the recipe.

Like Suzanne says: "Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other."

So you're a real cook. You truly believe every ingredient is important. You know, everything matters. You strike out each day, each meal, in search of perfection. Of course, your chase ends in the sublime. Your food tastes spectacular. You nourish others with kick-ass ingredients. This is the meal you envision.


You also envision the life you want to live.

You're a cook. You make food, for sure, but you live food too. Your ingredients are never merely limited to your dishes. You put a bit of yourself into a dish too: a bit of your stress, a bit of your fun, a bit of your obsession. You nourish others with your obsessive love.

But obsession can hurt people too. You're a real cook, which means you are uncompromising. You understand what a knife can do and you know how to yield it.

What if you step in the way of my search for satisfaction, delight, and perfection? I know what I do. I cut you. I call you names. I say, Get the fuck out of my kitchen. Then I slice your heart and serve it to you on a platter, garnished with lemon, for the sting.

No doubt, obsession hurts. Perhaps this is why so many great cooks are notoriously terrible people. We seek perfection for others, and we seek it in them too.

This is the type of attitude that says: I will cook you the perfect roast chicken, but you will not deserve it. Nobody deserves my roast chicken. Because to deserve my roast chicken you must first make it yourself. I buy immensely wonderful chicken from the local co-op, hormone free, anti-biotic free, displayed with happy little suicide notes from the chickens themselves! My chicken is brined in Sauvignon Blanc. My chicken is stuffed with two fat organic lemons, spiked with cloves. Then, as my chicken cooks, I say a prayer: God I hate killing little birds but at least we can eat them and do our little dance of praise.

Now, tell me, who cares this much? Not you.

No chicken for you!

I hate to say it, but this is me. This is me at work. This me, on the line, in the restaurant. This is me serving food to the undeserving masses.

(Illustration courtesy of Nesrine...)

Can I redeem myself? I try. I try to redeem myself with my love. I cook for my family, my friends, my wife. I try not to require perfection in them. I try to let them merely show up with an appetite (and, preferably, a bottle of wine). That should be enough. These people should deserve my food, without qualifications.

I cooked two Thanksgiving dinners this year (with the help of my formidable, patient wife): one on Thursday for my family and another on Friday for my other family, my friends.

I also cooked a pre-Thanksgiving Feast on Wednesday night.

I poured my heart into these meals, and yes, at times I felt nobody deserved my effort. But I tried so hard, so very hard.

For example:

Wednesday, I came home and brined a few turkeys with my great friend and neighbor JJ. We made a spectacular mess. Turkey juice splattered all over the kitchen. We filled trashbags with brine, slipped the turkeys in the bags, and then stuffed the bags in JJ's fridge. I'm sure we violated every possible sanitation practice recommended by the Department of Agriculture.

Then I made dinner with my buddy Mikey: roasted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips, roasted beets, pan-fried seitan, and melted kale. It was an epic, pre-Thanksgiving feast. A few friends came over. We got stoned on roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips. We drank wine.

Shortly after dinner, JJ went to his place to check on the turkeys. He rushed back.

He said: There's turkey brine all over my kitchen floor.

I went over and confirmed the disaster: one of the bags had exploded. JJ's kitchen was utterly flooded with impossibly unsanitary turkey brine-juice. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. We mopped, we scrubbed.

This is effort. But I love this effort. I love the hassles, the amazing dilemma. A cook has to love the effort--the effort is everything.

Fast forward to Friday. I've already cooked two turkeys. Karen and I have already served 15 family-members a fabulous Thanksgiving meal. We're dead tired, but we've made plans to do it again!

We've decided to eat at Karen's parent's house (we've been enlisted to baby-sit our nephews and niece; yes, we combine baby-sitting with massive displays of cooking and partying...) but because of a few complications I need to cook the turkey at my place. So I cook a 22-pound turkey and drive it over to Karen's parent's place in my car, precariously nestled in its roasting pan in the back seat, a pot of hot gravy on the seat below.

Friends show up. We drink wine. Karen carves the turkey. I mash sweet potatoes, finish the gravy, set the table. We sit down to a fabulous spread--no leftovers here: fresh cooked turkey, fresh gravy, fresh stuffing (two kinds), fresh pinto bean and winter squash stew, fresh mashed sweet potatoes, fresh grilled butternut squash. This is the fruit of obsession.

But what's this, a few friends are too fucked-up to eat! I curse them! Suddenly the meal turns sour. My hard work, I feel, is wasted. In the midst of my obsession, I feel deeply wounded.

My friends, I think, do not deserve my effort.

And this, to me, is the danger of food obsession: it just might steal your sense of light-heartedness.

It just might make you hate your friends for a night because they didn't eat your turkey.

Fuck them, you think. But then you feel lonely and full of sorrow. This is not the life you've envisioned. The life you've envisioned is full of delight.

You need a day to recover.

My recovery day was spent at Brigantine Beach at my father's house with my wife. We actually ate leftovers. We drank a bottle of wine in the middle of the afternoon. We took a long walk on the jetty. I took a long nap.

Around 8 o'clock we went to a Greek Diner. It was a terrible place. The menu was a ridiculous, chaotic blend of Greek, American, and Italian dishes. I ordered a half chicken. It came, inexplicably, with stuffing. A special Greek stuffing? No, a weird bread stuffing. I didn't eat it, of course. But I didn't complain either. I was happy. I was with my wife, my family. We talked, we shared wine, we shared bad food.

Yeah, bad food, but good meal. I got a chance to hang out with my family, and even though the food was terrible, when it was finished, I was still sitting there with my family, talking, and drinking not entirely bad "Greek" coffee.

Of course, I prefer great food and a great meal. I like when everyone eats kick-ass food, when everyone shares kick-ass food. The thing is though, that a meal is not entirely about the food.

You won't always have that perfect confluence of food and family or friends. Often, one or the other just goes bad. Sometimes, it's the people. Sometimes, it's the food.

But, in the end, a meal has to be as much about the people as the food.

After all, when the plates are cleared, only people are left: family, friends.

In some cultures this moment lasts for hours. Then it seems as if the food is merely an afterthought. What heartache for the cook! His effort, forgotten! Whatever. There will be other meals--other efforts.

Sometimes, it seems, nothing lives up to expectation: the people, the food.

I can forgive the food, but can I forgive the people?

Of course, a real cook always forgives.


Steve said...

I forgive nothing.

I'll kill you.

Then eat your heart. With peanuts.

Unbearable Lightness of Frosting said...

I loved this blog. It's such a Holiday classic!

I know that feeling of putting so much into something that no one can possibly validate your efforts in a way that seems satisfying. (That's why God made wine.)

The part about the turkey juice all over the kitchen floor was hilarious....reminds me of when my ex-husband and I decided to brew our own beer. There were some hilarious disasters of epic proportion which involved all of our towels and several gallons of disinfectant....and here, again, no one seemed to truly "appreciate" the beer quite the same as we did. (We even made cute little labels for the bottles.) Looking back now, I remember it as mostly wretched tasting...and of course because so much work had gone into it, we felt obligated to drink it anyway. Chugging 2-liter bottles of dark malt because we needed the bottles for the next batch probably did not help his drinking problem either. ;-)

The best recipe we had was one of mine, a dark, bitter, chocolate brew I called "Scarched Airth." The label had a little caricature of me in a kilt with a flaming golf club. Later he read one of my blogs and found out that the inspiration for the name came from my feelings about his philandering. That was the end of the beer making! (And other things...)

I can also validate, that, I too, run all over town for "special" foods and ingredients. I'm not even sure they are actually "the best," I just think they are. And I get really irritated if someone suggests differently.

Anyway, Happy Holidays and all that! Enjoyed this blog.

Steve said...

ha! home brew. i had a friend who made that as well. his wasn't so bad though.

I saw in your blogger profile that you like Elvis Perkins? Thats so funny. I knew him kinda well in college. I heard he was making music now. I have some funny stories/memories about him...

ULOF said...

I posted a more in depth blog about the "brewing" on my Myspace profile:

I love Elvis Perkins. I'm not quite sure how I happened on him, but he is one of those little known gems. How funny you knew him? Six degrees, huh?


Suzanne said...

Seth - This is fantastic. I love how you are able to discern the difference between good food and a good meal. In the end, it is more about the people sitting round the table, who are the most important ingredient of all.

I have some notes about that. The art of the 'sobremesa'. Sobremesa is an essential element to any meal in Spain and Argentina. It's the word for the time after all the plates have been cleared when everyone sits round the table talking, playing with crumbs and drinking wine. A new bottle of wine is often opened for the sobremesa. It's my favorite part of any meal.

Seth said...


The sobremesa! I was trying to think of that word, but Karen wasn't around when I wrote this blog.

She told me about the sobremesa years ago, in high school, after a trip to Mexico with her Spanish class.

Apparently, they had sat around so long after lunch they simply just started eating dinner.

I always loved the idea of that, although when I finally put it into practice (with our Catalan roommates in Barcelona) I found myself getting incredibly antsy.

I just couldn't sit there that long! I needed to get up, to walk around, to do something!

Still, I like when we sit around and I'm looking forward to our next chance...

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