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Food for Thought

Is cooking like love?

by Stephanie Piper

"Do you like to cook?" a new friend asks me.

It's August. It's Knoxville. The humidity is a damp, muffling blanket. My cooking consists of buying a cold chicken and slicing a Grainger County tomato.

"I do," she says. "I like to plan and shop and spend the whole day in the kitchen and then set the food before the person I love."

She's young, unmarried, childless. She is innocent of tuna casserole and sloppy joes and Ring Dings for dessert. She has not yet returned from work to a chorus of Mom-I-am-seriously-starving nor has she chopped onions before removing her coat. Cooking is still an act of creation, a territory of peaceful afternoons with Julia Child propped on the counter, clarified butter and parchment paper at hand.

I have to admit that my sloppy joe era ended some years ago, when the last of our sons decamped. No one greets me at the door with hollow eyes and rumbling stomachs anymore, and that's just dandy. To everything there is a season, and this is the season of cold chicken and Thai takeout.

Still, my friend's culinary reverence touches me. I think of her painstaking efforts and remember my own, back in the days when mastering the perfect gazpacho was high on my list of life goals. Could there be a greater proof of devotion than those carefully seeded tomatoes, those artfully diced cucumbers?

Good cooking is inextricably bound up with love, a fact that rarely surfaces in today's tidal wave of nutrition-speak and diet data. We forget that food and love are both sustenance, and that one out of two is not enough. And we forget the common traits they share.

The best cooks I ever knew understood that cooking, like love, is a matter of perseverance. My grandmother told me once how she mastered pie crust. Day after day, she stood at the kitchen table cutting shortening into flour and mixing it with ice water. Night after night, she stole down to the curbside trash cans to deposit her failures. She went through 20 pounds of flour in a week. By the time she told me the story, her pastry was the envy of three counties.

My own kitchen history is peppered with blunders: fried chicken that looked like a Colonel Sanders fantasy but was raw beneath the golden crust; Thanksgiving gravy that no amount of straining could rid of its persistent lumps. I remembered the pie crust and soldiered on.

And cooking, like love, draws richness from ritual. My grandmother's incomparable potato salad traveled to weddings, wakes and christenings in the same yellow Fiestaware bowl. It would have been sacrilege to serve it from any other container.

Family birthdays were marked with a cake my mother made only for those occasions. The chocolate icing was an inch thick, flavored with that morning's reheated coffee. I have tried without success to duplicate it. It was, for me, the taste of pure happiness.

Now, in the heat of an August afternoon, I think of my long-ago gazpacho. With all the chopping and seeding, it took hours to make. But served at twilight on a summer evening, it seemed a double gift: the twin streams of sustenance, poured into a pottery bowl.

August 9, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 32
© 2001 Metro Pulse