Why I Cook
I cook because a hot baking powder biscuit is an invitation that no guest can refuse, drawing one downward to a seat at the kitchen table where neighbors trade closely held secrets. I cook because cooks are alchemists, transforming flour and apples into a shotgun marriage of tart Macouns and rich, flaky crusts. I cook because I am the king of my small domain, working without kind words of advice or the helpful suggestion, free to do it my way and at my own pace. Cooking is the amalgamation of a life, the gathering up of tiny bits of experience and knowledge, rolled into a perfect circle of dough or kindly spooned into a worn casserole. I have found nothing clearer in objective or intent than the execution of a recipe, a lockstep of beginnings and endings as comforting as the hollow punctuation of chalk on a grammar school blackboard. This imparts purpose and clarity, delivering blessed structure to the tumble of hours during a long Saturday afternoon.
Cooking is about making do with the crudest of tools, rolling dough with a wine bottle or baking a blueberry cobbler on a covered grill when the power fails after an evening's thunderstorm. Cooks overcome inconvenience and muddle through to the end without complaint, changing plans for want of an ingredient or plunging wildly in a new direction inspired by a whiff of freshly picked rosemary or the burst of flavor from a ripe tomato. We are easily led, I think, susceptible to the whims of life for the sake of pleasure, hedonists seeking out what is pure and undiscovered.
But our pursuit of pleasure eventually leads to simplicity, not excess. Good cooks are well connected to the past and are unrepentant in their love of the familiar. Good recipes stand the tests of time and are offered without a thought for the despotism of modern fashion. As we grow in experience, we relish the taste of bourbon sipped from a tin cup by a campfire more than the rarest cognac. We crave a crisp Baldwin in autumn and the taste of hot maple syrup from the first run in March, lungs filled with moist, sweet smoke. We run our fingers through the slow, undulating pour of honey from September's hives and shove them in our mouth, tongues seeking out the distinct notes of goldenrod and wildflower. In our hands, dough comes alive with an elastic bounce that confirms our suspicions about the breadth of life, which reaches down into the most everyday objects. We are common people, we cooks, but we are blessed with a keen tongue and a sharp eye to uncover life's secrets, growing by the side of the brook or unfurling in the strengthening spring sunlight.
Like lovers, we bring our skills and knowledge with us wherever we go, daring to stand naked in front of the world without props or frivolous trappings. Good cooks offer pleasure readily, seemingly without effort, needing no more than a sizzle or a whiff. We are neither artists nor artisans but proud workers, content with the ringing of spoons on old soup bowls and the view down the table of heads bowed over hot suppers. And we feel obliged to give our thanks, our blessings to the food and the table, knowing that we are somehow part of a grander plan.
I suppose that I cook, after all, because I have to. It is not sport or intellectual curiosity that drives me so much as the need to use one's hands upon occasion, to put aside the keyboard, the steering wheel, and the telephone in favor of the knife and the onion. I can feel the world rush by my kitchen window and leave me undisturbed, my attention absorbed by proofing dough or roasting chicken. When we take up the knife, we leave behind all that we don't need, all that is constantly pressed upon us for our time and consideration. Cooking is one of the last acts of defiance, a time when the phone rings unanswered and the outside world is left to make do with the answering machine.
Each of us cooks because we secretly recognize each other as we pass in the street, bakers or barbecuers, knowing that we live a secret life within arm's length of the stove, simply passing time as best we can the rest of the day. We harbor the cherished hope that when the world comes to its senses that we will know something of value, something that we can pass on to future generations. Perhaps that torch will never be passed, I don't know, but each of us does our part with a lick of the spoon or a swirl of batter, small faces wide-eyed with the fantastic promise of the kitchen.