Why I Cook

cornmeal

I read a post today on Medium by Andrew Weil, MD and while I don’t identify with almost anything else he said in it, I agree with this: “…cooking gives you a chance to practice the esoteric art of manifestation — bringing something from the imagination into physical reality.” I made something this week that I’ve made dozens of times (it’s a tomatoey braised beef dish that’s a favorite wintertime dinner for us), but this time I served it over polenta laced with mascarpone cheese and made a couple other tweaks and suddenly this food that had been a perfectly easy, perfectly delicious meal was as good as our favorite Italian restaurant, which I have to say is pretty fucking good. Their chef is exceptionally gifted and the food there is made with so much love, you can literally taste it. Love of the people, or of the process or of the ingredients–I’m not sure. It’s sometimes hard to tell without talking to a chef what turns them on. I’d guess people in this case.

Anyway, there is no reason why cornmeal porridge should be so much more pleasant than egg noodles, except that it was. And, this time at least, it was the creation. In Lidia Bastianich’s polenta recipe, you simmer water, milk, salt, butter and a bay leaf and slowly sift the cornmeal into the simmering liquid while stirring. I used my favorite wooden spoon, the one with the hole in the middle, and scooped the cornmeal in by hand, letting it slide through my fingers and disappear into the liquid. Watching the concoction go from frankly yucky-looking yellow sand in dirty water to creamy, delicious-smelling polenta was immensely gratifying (especially when it worked, which I wasn’t sure it would).

But the best thing about making it was the fifteen minutes of cornmeal slipping through my fingers. I can still feel it, rough and sandy, but leaving a fine, soft, powdery silt behind, filling in the ridges of my fingerprints. That it tasted good was almost an afterthought.

Sometimes I get asked by people why I don’t write fiction. Or, more to the point, I get told by well-meaning folks that someday, after being a romance reader and reviewer for a while, I’ll want to write one myself. I find this funny. I usually make a quip about leaving the writing to the professionals or not being able to sit still long enough to write a novel. But that’s not really the case. I’m an amateur writer (in the sense that I don’t get paid), but I think I’m okay at it. And I sit still playing Dragon Age for hours at a time. So I suppose I could probably write fiction if I so desired. God knows I’ve read enough of it. But the truth is, I don’t think it would be enough for me. I love the physicality of food. For me at least, love is touch.

It’s probably not something the people who ask me the question would want to hear. After all, most of them are writers themselves. All of them are readers. And for people like us, there’s almost nothing better than the miracle of the written word. To aspire to create them in the context of fiction is practically the highest calling any of us can think of.

But in my case, the miracle has been in the discovery, not the slog. What I mean is that uncovering the layers a gifted, practiced writer has put into a story for me to find is way better than the hours it would take me to construct a similar architecture. It’s a pleasure for sure. And I’m sure there are similar pleasures for writers in creation of a story or why would they do it? It can’t be all awful all the time. Or if it is, I’m sorry.

I just can’t imagine what they might be. Can there be anything as good about writing as feeling that cornmeal slide through your fingers?

3 comments

  1. Like you I got that comment a lot at RWA and I was similarly flustered by it. I love writing, and I write plenty of non-fiction, but the main way I satisfy my impulse to create is also physical. I am a knitter and I love sewing. I improvise in cooking but it is not same kind of creative expression that you are describing. But finding the right yarn, and working with the right pattern or modifying one is what give me that thrill.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly it. I mean, I enjoy writing about what I read and cook because writing seems to satisfy my desire to think out loud. But the cooking, and to a lesser extent, the photography, are what I consider the really creative endeavors.

  2. I don’t think I have the right kind of brain to write fiction, but I do get a real thrill from finding just the right words when I write…

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