Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On creation.

Lately I've been surrounding myself with the words of women whose lives have been shaped by food. They are great company, these women, and reveal something new to me with each read. My latest culinary/literary journey was Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. Jones was the legendary Knopf editor responsible for publishing dozens of food luminaries over the course of her career. As the Times put it, "Ms. Jones may not be the mother of the revolution in American taste ... but she remains its most productive midwife."

Toward the end of her memoir, Judith discusses what it was like to begin cooking for herself after her husband and partner in all things food passed away. 

After Evan died, in the winter of 1996, I doubted that I would ever find pleasure in making a nice meal for myself and sitting down to eat it all alone. I was wrong. Instead, I realized that the ritual we had shared together for almost fifty years was a part of the rhythm of my life, and by honoring it I kept alive something that was deeply ingrained in our relationship. In fact, more than ever I found myself, about mid-afternoon, letting my mind drift toward what I was going to conjure up for dinner when I got home. Instead of walking into what might have seemed an empty apartment - actually, I've always had a dog who is hungry to greet me - I gravitate toward the kitchen, as I did as a young girl to bask in Edie's warmth, and I can't wait to bring it to life, to fill it with good smells, to start chopping or whisking or tossing and smelling up my hands with garlic. I turn on some music and have a glass of Campari or wine, and it is for me the best part of the day, a time for relaxation. When, at last, I sit down and light the candles, the place across from me is not empty.

This passage strikes right to the heart of why I love to cook. The joy of it, for me, is essentially a solo effort. The end result feeds us, sure, and I do adore cooking for others and sharing food with people I love, but the process is really the product for me. My cluttered mind is always desperate for expressive release, which explains the four blogs over the last six years and a lifetime of writing just to clear my head. In time, cooking has become another form of release for me, a method of creation that soothes my cluttered mind as much as it produces something worthwhile in the end.

It wasn't always like this. Through college, and even through much of graduate school, cooking was born of necessity and rarely given much thought. It wasn't until I lived alone in a tiny adobe apartment in Albuquerque that I realized how much I truly enjoyed my time alone in that tiny space of creation. Cooking in that kitchen was entirely on my terms. I cooked alone (my kitchen could barely fit two people anyway); I cooked with tools and vessels I loved (it's there that I began my love affair with flame Le Creuset - a dangerous habit that gets worse all the time); I took as long as I wanted and had no one waiting on me (eating at 9? no problem). I also realized that I loved cookbooks that read like novels,and began reading them as such (food is life is journeying is personal is political).


Tiny nook off my barely-bigger old kitchen in New Meixco. 
Colorful, cluttered, and unmistakably mine.

I'm grateful these days, in a kitchen that's much more modern and better-equipped than any I've had before, for those years in that tiny, colorful nook all my own. It's there that I realized the joy of cooking for myself, of culinary discovery of my own design, of not only how meditative cooking a risotto can be, but how being meditative is really a requirement to the perfect risotto. In many ways, I think my approach to cooking is the opposite of Judith's. She's finding the pleasures of cooking for one late in her cooking journey, whereas that's how I began. In my case, I'm grateful I found it alone.

Since we're on the subject of women whose lives were shaped by food, this afternoon I'm going to meet Ruth Reichl, who's doing a book tour for Gourmet Today. I can become uncharacteristically shy around famous people I admire, so I won't tell her how much I adore her memoirs, or how much of a treat reading Gourmet every month is, or how much her second book in particular was so painfully familiar to read that it still haunts me. I won't say any of that. I'll smile, and have her sign something, and move on.

But to all these women whose paths to creation are the stuff of food and words, there are things I wish I could say more eloquently. Thank you for putting yourselves out there. I like thinking that my journey in the kitchen is part of a collective experience, however selfishly it suits my own needs. You are all endlessly inspiring in the most personal of ways, and your words are welcome in my kitchen any time.

10 comments:

  1. I love this post maggie!! I find you inspiring. i have a deep love to cook, yet i rarely make the time to do it. i need to get on that ASAP.

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  2. Love this. And totally jealous that you are meeting Reichl today - I got the email and was uber-bummed that her signing is at 3 :(

    Now I need to set about making my own risotto...

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  3. Well said, as always. I'm in love with your colorful ex-kitchen. And I'm so jealous that you're meeting Ruth, and so grateful to you for turning me on to her! She's going to near my part of the world in a few weeks, but I can't make it, I'm so bummed. Have fun, can't wait to hear about it!!

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  4. Great post...I love the voice your writing has! One of my favorite quotes about food....hope you like!

    "Eating is a profoundly joyful act, one through which we feast on God’s goodness in the most tangible of ways. It is a direct connection between our fellow human beings and the earth itself. Food is a gift of delight & sharing: a daily & routine reminder of the providence of God and the commitment to hospitality, mission & justice that flows naturally from genuine delight."
    Paraphrased from the writings of L. Shannon Jung

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  5. So eloquently put. I tend to cook (when I (rarely) do) with a results-oriented focus, versus focusing on the process, although baking is somewhat meditative for me. I appreciate seeing it from your point of view.

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  6. Believe me, if I had known you didn't know I would have been the first to tell you! Oh well, maybe you could invite them to a vow renewal? Eh?

    P.S. How is this the first time I've seen THIS blog of yours? LOVE IT SO MUCH! Adding it to my reader right now.

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  7. Cooking Classes. CT 4. IT IS ON!

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  8. This is lovely writing....

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  9. so well put Maggie...it made me recall when I too moved into my first apartment post-college and developed an intense relationship with my grocery store and my kitchen. The Sunday ritual of shopping, cooking and sipping on some wine became my greatest love - a practice that i still do today - even with my 2 little ones running around my feet! And by the way, I just love your little kitchen. The colors are wonderful!
    Thanks,
    Laurie

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