A good friend came for a visit last summer, and I served her a homemade lasagne quattro formaggi. It’s the sort of thing that sounds really difficult and convoluted, but really isn’t. I mean, it’s noodles and mornay sauce. Oh, there may have been some funghi and prezzemolo involved for kicks and giggles. It’s a bit time consuming, but not difficult. She wanted to know if we ate like that a lot or if it was just because she was there. My husband sort of cocked his head, a forkful of cheesy goodness perched in front of his mouth, and asked her what she meant. “This is how we eat,” he said with a note of confusion in his voice. I can’t do much. I have no thing. I can occasionally write something interesting, and I can cook. I’ve accepted the writing part for years, but the cooking thing was more difficult.
I grew up in a house where we ate in. When the quarterly trip to the country club came, it was because dad said they’d charge him whether we ate or not. My brother and I would dream up schemes to get us to go out for dinner. They never worked, but the upside is I have memories of dinners instead of restaurants. (The exception is Nick’s in Jackson, Mississippi which I believe to be one of the finest restaurants anywhere. I will admit to having impure thoughts about their veal Marsala) My grandfather could be relied on to appear, as if by compelled, at the door when my mother made fried chicken. Mom’s bean salad is legendary in some circles, praised even by her mother-in-law who seemed otherwise content to live on a diet of creamed corn and cheese. Oh, but even that grandmother made excellent tartar sauce and pralines smooth as baby cheeks.
Ask people what they want mama to make when they go home and you’ll get a litany of comfort foods like peach cobbler, fried chicken, pimento cheese, rice pudding, and chicken spaghetti. Nothing fancy, but all made with Mom Magic. Mom Magic is sort of like MSG in that it makes everything taste better, but impossible to replicate. Try as he might, my friend cannot make spaghetti and meatballs the way his mother does. My mother and I could watch my grandmother make fried chicken a million times, but we’ve never been able to match what we called her “sticky chicken”. Cooking is more than chemistry. It’s witchcraft.
The thing about cooking is that it’s intimate. You are nourishing the body of another. I don’t want to get all new-agey about this, but cooking is powerful stuff. Food is medicine, fuel, and memory. The implements can be as space-age as a sous vide water oven, or as old-fashioned as a cast iron one. Flour, water, and yeast can be combined one way to make a crisp-crusted baguette, an airy ciabatta, or sticky-sweet rolls stuffed with Chinese barbecue pork. Still, to this very day, every time I make something that turns out well, that people eat and ask for, I feel a sensation that is partly like a chest-thumping I MAKE YOU GOOD EATING feeling and one closer akin to one of hey, you really don’t have to eat that if it tastes like rabbit pellets sprinkled on charred burlap. You can tell me, promise.
I spent many years foolishly believing that cooking and feminism went together like green beans and chocolate sauce. I understand now that cooking is less submissive and more subversive. I know few people who regularly cook from scratch. I don’t cook for my family because I’m not smart or because I want to outdo my sister wife. I cook because I can. I need to cook in the same way I need to create this essay. It is the same force which compels me to meander around the woods with a camera. There are few things better than working off a bad mood by knocking some brioche dough around. The eating it part might be one, though.