10 things cooking taught me

My friend posted a link to a CNN article the other day on the wisdom to be found in kitchens. Kim O’Donnel’s piece is a tender account of the lessons in stirring and braising, and it inspired me to write my own. So here’s my list of 10 things cooking has taught me; not the things it should teach you, or reasons why everyone should begin a love affair with their kitchen. Nope, just what it’s taught me in the course of my very ordinary, very blessed, life.

1. How to break the rules. Recipes are just someone else’s interpretation of what a meal should be. Experiment.  Breaking the rules is more fun when you know them.  Use your intuition.

2. Everything is better outside. A can of beans heated over a camping stove. Impromptu dinners hacked together from convenience stores and road-side stands. Under the canopy of the sky, a meal is a magical thing.

3. You can always make something out of nothing (and if you can’t, a glass of wine will fix it). My fridge can look like a blinding white void, empty of nutrients. Paired with a little creativity, often the things I just throw together turn out the best.

4. Hospitality tastes better. My mother’s food always tastes better, even when I follow her recipes perfectly. Yes, my mother is a great cook, but there’s a simple magic in gestures of generosity. Whenever other people feed me, my critical faculties seem to dial down. I don’t want to analyze, I just want to enjoy.

5. Life is made up of cycles and rituals. We are creatures of habit, and meals give our lives shape and structure.  The cycle of the seasons each being their gifts and deficits. Few things are ever finished.

6. Friendship follows food. Having lived with many great cooks over the years (including one that coached me through making rice for the first time in my new apartment), I’ve learned that friendship follows closely on the heels of food. Weekly meals with roommates strengthened our displaced sense of home. As I’ve grown older, sitting around a table has replaced some of the all-night romps of early adulthood. For me, people are best across a table set with good food and wine.

7. Food is tied to memory. From my great-grandmother’s canned chicken to our family’s favorite cookie, food connects me to the past. More sensual than photos and more tangible than nostalgia, the tastes of my summer nights at the cottage and family dinners are permanently fixed. Food brings places and people closer.

8. Go to the source. Greatness moves from the bottom-up: Good fresh garlic, summer’s tomatoes, anything home-grown. At the farmer’s market, I can talk to my egg farmer. Try as I might, I can’t do that with a dairy cooler.

9. Frugality has a limit. It’s worth figuring out which things are worth saving money on and which are worth the extra splurge (like olive oil).

10. Embrace variety. I can track carbs, obsess over eating less fat, and worry about whether I’m getting enough protein until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make me satisfied. Balancing, trying new things, and having desserts that actually taste like dessert will. I’ll enjoy my food more if it surprises me. Boredom is the enemy of wellness.

I’d love to hear what has cooking taught you.

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