Why I'm cooking.

The air in my apartment is layered with scents of autumn rapidly collapsing and fading to winter: dry, stale heat bangs out of radiators that have been sleeping since April; leaves fallen from the tree outside have gathered in damp gutters and under car wheels, decomposing with a familiar fragrance I’ve never been able to describe. Almost smoky. A cross breeze cuts through from the open back door in the kitchen, setting me shivering with warmly scented memories of peppercorn bacon and brewed coffee on Sunday morning, Monday night bread baking with cinnamon and nutmeg, dinnertime garlic and onion, baking and sautéing filling my days.

This happens to me a couple of times a year: I’m seized with a mad desire to cook everything. And it’s not just in fall. The urge strikes at random. In the past, this has resulted in many loaves of quick breads and a couple of pasta dishes slightly more complex than the standard penne with Italian sausage, spinach and homemade marinara.

Traditionally, I’ve chosen safe-bet dishes. A necessity for someone who’s actually terrified of cooking. Between the commitment — time, money, refrigerator real estate — and my high risk of abject failure and subsequent need to fall back on the shameful Spaghetti-O backup plan have kept me paralyzed for life.

Pumpkin bread

Yes, there have been quick breads: beer bread, pumpkin bread, banana bread. There has been pasta. But something has changed this time around, though. Maybe it’s the prospect of new love bolstering my spirit; maybe it’s my new health and wellness coach, Lisa, lighting a fire under my ass; maybe I’m simply sick of my pants not fitting; maybe I’ve realized I cannot survive on Spoon Thai’s green curry with chicken alone.

I made chili. My mother’s recipe, deceptively simple but daunting nonetheless to a doting, reverent daughter, finally duplicated in my kitchen to faithful specifications, though not exactly exacting. In addition to the chili powder, cumin and diced tomatoes, her recipe adds cocoa powder for a richness and depth that was a mystery to us for many years.

I was astonished at the first spoonful: a taste of my onetime home in my now home. My mother used to send me back from holidays with frozen Tupperware containers of it, wrapped in foil and sealed in Ziploc bags, packed into my suitcase to enjoy for weeks after I returned home. And now here it was, made by me…an entire batch of it, all to myself.

It’s like Christmas in a bowl…every day…for the past week. (That’s one of the other reasons I historically don’t cook: my culinary attention span has little time for those miles of cooking-for-one-leftovers.)

Christmas in a bowl, wrapped up with the gift of self-confidence when I realize, yes, I can cook.

 

This afternoon, I played with leeks and butternut squash. I’d never so much as touched either before today, and today, I’m cooking with both.

Pumpkin-leek soup

My first-ever blended soup experiment was not without stumbles: First, I forgot to buy celery. Then, I got all the way through peeling and cubing an acorn squash, only to realize the recipe called for butternut. (Peeling a lovely, scalloped-edge acorn squash is not an easy task, by the way.) But friends assured me that the soup could do without celery, and the farmers market is right across the street, so butternut was handily acquired.

The mixture did not boil over the top of my too-small pot. The blender did not erupt with scalding soup. And when I took my first taste…it was perfect.

God, I can cook. The astonishment could wear off, maybe.

 

Tonight, I’m making pork loin and homemade beer-bread stuffing (adapted from this recipe).

Maybe I’ll settle in for a couple hours of work before I start in on dinner; I’ve officially done nothing to generate income today. The rent’s paid through the end of November…

 

For all the reasons I’m cooking right now, I think there’s one that tops them all: In my head, spending hours on a single meal somehow makes it okay not to be writing. Which is where I’m funneling my fear now.

My words have gotten me in trouble lately; if I’m not pissing someone off, then no one is really paying attention. There was once a happy medium. Writing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach; I dread sitting down to write as much as I do going to the gym to burn off all this food.

My fears of squandering time and money dissipate with every meal I make; I actually look forward to the challenge, because it’s one I feel I have control over. Pulling that fresh loaf of bread out of the oven doesn’t leave me emotionally exhausted. Even if I screw up the meal, at least I’ll have tried. I’ll at least have something to show for my efforts. Even if there’s a big mess to clean up when I’m done cooking…at least it’s well contained. At least it’s just my mess. People don’t get angry when you make them dinner.

The shopping, the chopping, the first taste from a wooden spoon, the whole meal arranged on a plate — this all feels safe and warm for the moment, makes me feel like I’m growing as a person. Writing doesn’t bring me joy right now, and I’m trying to be okay with that. Creativity ebbs and flows. Needs can change like the weather.

To everything there is a season.
A seasoning.
Pass the pepper, please.

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9 Responses to “Why I'm cooking.”

  1. Helena Butters Says:

    I love Fall foods so much that it often inspires me to cook. I’m crazy about squash and served it with dinner three times last week, I believe. There are still some recipes I want to try (like squash bread pudding). I know that carrots can turn your skin orange if you eat a ton – we shall see what happens when you eat more squash than anyone ever thought possible.

    I can also relate to the idea of doing one thing to avoid another. I’m a compulsive cleaner when I’m nervous. It was amusing to me the other weekend when my sister came over to talk about a stressful situation and absentmindedly picked up the broom. Compulsive cleaning is apparently genetic.

    • paigeworthy Says:

      I had about eight tabs open yesterday of recipes with pumpkin. I bought five cans of pumpkin puree — I have no idea why — and am bound and determined to use it all on different recipes. Have used two so far…

  2. Tatiana0108 Says:

    Paige:

    I love this piece. LOVE it! And I think cooking is sexy! So, go on with your bad self! Cook away. Some of the best things happen when you do…

    Tatiana

  3. Ariane Says:

    Its wonderful to see you starting to play with food.  For many years, cooking has been a major hobby of mine and food has long been my “love language” and  how I show I care.   It does take practice, though, and it took me about a year to get used to cooking for 2 instead of cooking for 4 like when I lived back with my parents.  It can also be a lot healthier to cook for yourself – you can spend a little extra money on spices and save on fat, and especially since you live in a big city, you should have access to some incredible ingredients.

    A lot of my best memories with my mom center around food – as much as we have butted heads over the years on a pretty wide variety of topics, we have always been able to find common ground in planning, preparing, and sharing a meal. 🙂  A few weeks ago,  I made an apple tart and had to call her – she apparently had made one the day before and though of me, too.

    • paigeworthy Says:

      Thanks, Ariane!
      And yes…I just realized that about 90% of the dinner I’m making tonight — from the pork I bought at a local butcher to the bread I made to the sage I stole from my neighbors’ planter — is locally sourced. Looking forward to getting started 🙂

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Paige…Lovely post…really.  I find Fall to be the most sensuous of seasons and, in that sensuality, I often find creativity in the kitchen.  There is, as you so beautifully described, a certain comfort in the scents of Fall that co-mingle with the aromas of stews simmering, breads baking and tea steeping.  Kudos to you for creating your own version of your family’s chili recipe and for tackling the unknown culinary possibilities of squash (acorn or butternut) and leeks.  But mostly, for understanding that our creativity does, indeed, ebb and flow and shows up for us in the most interesting places…the kitchen, for example.  And, for being okay with that.  And for just knowing…for everything there is a season(ing).  
    Beautiful post.
    Claudia

  5. Lois Berk Scott Says:

    My mouth is watering for your chili and pumpkin soup recipes!!  I’m Lisa’s first cousin, my Mom was sister to her Dad, my favorite uncle!

  6. BW Brooks Says:

    Cooking is a fantastic art, much more accessible than people realize.  It really does bring a comfort, to be able to make something at the end of a long day.  My wife and I alternate on cooking; we try to fit in a new experiment at least once a week, amidst all the tried-and-trues.

    Protip:  grocery-store celery might as well be styrofoam, you won’t ever need it, unless you’re fond of the crunch.

    Of course, not every recipe will be to everyone’s taste, and not every experiment is a success, but that never stops us from trying again the next day.* It is through trial, error and refinement that we become better.  Which, if I recall from the Smithsonian, was Julia Childs’s method as well.

    *That’s in no way a metaphor for writing, either.

  7. Amy de la Fuente Says:

    I have felt the need to occupy my kitchen in a domestic way lately too. I think it is as much the season as is it that homemade food smells and tastes delicious (not to mention warms your kitchen). Last night I prepared cider chicken, butternut squash casserole and homemade applesauce. Today is white been soup. I have never heard about the cocoa ingredient for chili. I will have to try it as we are big chili fans. The good thing about batch cooking is you can freeze a bunch for when you want the homemade but don’t have time to spend in the kitchen. Bon Appetit!

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