"All roads lead to the home..."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Anyone who's had a mom (or dad), or perhaps a grandmother (or grandfather), devoted to cooking, you know food is more than food. When made by the right person, they are small mysteries, channeled with all the love and affection a person can muster. It requires all the qualities that are necessary for an exceptional parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover, or even a child.
In a bite, you not only learn about the creator but also about yourself. You inherit knowledge of your past, not just of your family, but also your culture. Of what makes you you; that you are never alone.
For this reason, I read cookbooks for a very different reason than most others. I am not looking a repository for recipes that pique my interest; I am looking for writings about food as metaphor, which in home cooking, as opposed to standard restaurant cooking, they are. Food is a conduit for the life lived by its creator, to be passed down to its recipient. So for this reason, it is difficult to find writings about food for my particular tastes; but, perhaps, it was Marcella Hazan who first taught me that food writing could also be a conduit for the life lived by its creator.
This is not only true for Italy but all regional cooking; home cooking is cultural exchange. Food is material, what is at the heart of the matter is familial bonds and community, and the greater understanding of one's place in existence.
"All roads lead to the home..." That line shattered me into a million little pieces. It's what we all want, isn't it? Whether we pursue money, sex, power, or gastronomic experiences, we just want to be closer to the home of yesterday. Whether it is the love we felt as children, or it is the love we wished we felt.
We think the answer is more. Double it. When there is a problem, double down. But we only need more if we don't know how to fully utilize what we already have. And if we keep adding more, how will we ever master what is already there? How will we master anything? Is the job to highlight or to cover up? And that depends on whether or not you created your foundation the right way.
Like all noble qualities, home cooking is not convenient cooking. Convenience removes us from direct experience. And since life can only be known through experience, to remove ourselves from direct experience is to remove ourselves from the act of living. We are in such a rush for results, we forget that the part in the middle, the thing between birth and death, is everything. If you are reasonable in mind, then you will realize what is in need of praise is not speed, but a praise in slowness. But the state of the world praises the opposite, and that is unreasonable.
We are so quick to throw things away, but if we held onto things longer, we would need less, and we would treat things better. We would be more creative in our uses of things. And we would live with fewer regrets.
And water, so common that we take it for granted. Yet water is vital, those common things are vital. We move to the next thing, the newer thing, rather than mastering the first thing. Like water, we move onto other things before we master our breath, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Then we spend the rest of our days in a race against time trying to go back to the first thing.
What is of value is time. What extras buy you are shortcuts. But you can do with less and fewer ingredients with time as your ally. And what is our usual relationship with time? It is our enemy. We are always against it, we hate it, we feel think we are running out of it. Yet when we have too much of it, we are bored with it, we hate it, and wished it would go faster. Time, like water, we take it for granted. But time is not our natural enemy; it is an adversarial perspective we choose to take. What used to be natural, was for time to be our friend and teacher. To plant a seed and allow time to do its work. Give a child a lesson and allow time to do the rest. To master the primary (flavors or otherwise) is to master time.
With simple Buddhist cooking, to achieve flavor, rather than rich ingredients, the monk uses time. It is her greatest asset. Time beats money. Time eventually beats everything. The more you have, the less time you can spend with any one thing, less time to do any one thing. You can do more with less, this is not just a saying, this is a mathematical truth. Rather than fight time, do what we were meant to do, embrace it. Then begins your time of abundance.
Like people, some things need time and a second chance to bloom.
Once you develop skill or knowledge, you don't have to use it right away. You can apply it when ready. There are many things you should learn not for immediate use but because it will serve you later on.
The point is to live a rich and textured life. If you don't have the ideal conditions, just start from wherever you are. Life existed before all the creature comforts.
And if you get lost, improvise. But have fun.
And sometimes there is nothing more to be said.
This is the heart of Taoism, balancing and counterbalancing of extremes. We go about our lives believing the world is binary, black and white, and we can get away with this sort of fallacious thinking without every thinking we are wrong. But cooking, like in the martial arts, when you believe something fallacious, there is instant objective feedback: You lose the match; your meal is awful. People who think in binary have extreme political views and make for terrible martial artists and cooks. The activity illuminates your worldview.
Once you begin, keep it lively, check on your progress, and adjust as you go along.
When my mother was alive, she put all her love and effort into her meals. When I asked why, she told me all the ways she felt she was lacking, but the one area where she felt she could impart all of her essence was in her cooking. She was in many ways a victim of circumstances, but in the kitchen she was the maestro. She told me when she cooked, she didn't think about recipes, she only thought of her children. For these reasons, it is not enough to say she was an excellent cook. There are many fine cooks and chefs. But few are loving cooks. And I'll never taste her cooking again. So, when I miss her, I pick up cookbooks. Rather than replicate the taste, I am more interested in what people who put their heart and soul into their meals are thinking. So that I may better understand what she was thinking. Because I didn't ask enough.
Mothers give life, not only through the act of birth, but through the act of giving food. Whether they bottle fed us or breastfed, initially, mothers were our food. Then it does not matter if they ever cooked or cooked well. We will always associate food with our mothers. To their touch, to their love. And even without having any children of their own, a loving cook becomes a mother. Then, sometimes, better than other books, a proper cookbook can express the warm embrace of our mothers, and our longing to return home.