One of the least sentient responses to why someone enjoys cooking would be to think that it’s because they enjoy eating. In my case (and in many other cases I presume) this statement would only be partially true: “I eat therefore I cook”; I’ve met plenty of people who like to eat yet loath cooking. And whilst I enjoy eating, I enjoy cooking more so.
A taste, a meal, is a fleeting experience. Sure, there are the memories attached to the occasion, but I don’t have a taste memory per se. Unlike an image or a feeling, I can’t re-taste (it’s sort of like pain, you know you experienced it yet it’s impossible to conjure), though something I’m tasting presently has the ability to evoke a memory I haven’t thought of in years (exactly in the way smell does). There’s no denying the fact that, no matter how much we spend on a meal, we eat because it’s an essential requirement to existence, to being. And I’m in the camp that freely and happily admits that since my being requires me to eat, the experience may as well be pleasurable: I was born with taste buds so I may as well put them to use for the brief amount of time that they’ll be of any utility.
Cooking to me is something more than putting food on a plate (and ultimately into my belly); it is simultaneously a process and an escape. If I put my mind to it, I can improve, I can become more efficient, I can learn something that will in effect improve my life as well as the lives of my children and wife, friends and family.
But cooking is also time by myself, some time alone, alone. When I chop an onion I often think of Thomas Keller who (and I’m paraphrasing) said that doing the basic things frees your mind to think of other things, but that you have to learn to do that basic things well in order to allow you mind to turn its attention to the other things without allowing the quality or your technique to suffer. Then my mind often turns to thinking of Jacques Pepin who I’ve witnessed on his shows chop an onion far more efficiently and with less apparent thought than anyone else I’ve witnessed, and I wonder how many onions he had to chop to arrive at that level of efficiency.
The things I enjoy to do most in the kitchen are some of the most basic and rudimentary, and I know anyone who cooks has their own list. They are: cleaning mushrooms, peeling and de-veining shrimp, peeling asparagus, chopping stuff up, breaking down poultry. All really repetitive actions which allow my mind to roam free and yet all very tactile to prevent my mind wandering too far.
Cooking has been good to me this year, in truth it’s probably kept me from a therapist’s office. The problems in my life have mounted and multiplied, and yet there’s always been a dinner I needed to prepare, a pie to bake or pasta to be rolled with Nate, some cookies to share with the neighbors. I’ve cooked the most needless things this year sometimes just to do it, to escape, sometimes to learn something new, and sometimes (quite selfishly) just to see the expression of excitement on Nate’s face either when he helps me do something or when he tastes it. I generally don’t cook to feed other people because I generally don’t have the need to, and besides, nothing would bore me quicker; of course it’s an essential by-product of my labor that’s fun to share, but it’s just that, a by-product, not the essential reason for which I am cooking. I cook because the process excites me, because there’s always something to learn, do better, quicker, to teach Nate (and eventually Lindsay), and yes, because it’s time to myself, to let my mind wander and sometimes to escape the crappy day I’m having.