Embracing the act of being slightly extra, or cooking as an act of love.
My family generally subscribes to the idea that everything should be taken in moderation, including moderation.
As a person who loves things that are a little extra, this idea has always resonated with me. Generally, I try to live a balanced life. But sometimes, overdoing it a little isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love applying this to food. Instead of just eggs and avocado for breakfast (already slightly extra), how about some chipotle crema on that? And could doubling the herbs in a recipe really do any damage? Let’s find out!
To me, cooking is an act of love. My dad tells me my mom was an amazing gourmet cook, who, when she was at home from her job as an international flight attendant, would cook slightly extravagant dinners that he raves about to this day. My mom died when I was 6, so I don’t remember any of her cooking (though I do remember her bringing me treats from Tokyo, London and Seoul).
But I was lucky. I had a great role model in my dad. He made us dinner every night, always tried to get some greens in there, and truly enjoyed cooking. Sometimes it was simple stuff, like teriyaki chicken and rice or spaghetti and frozen meatballs, but other times it was impressive.
He used to have a yellow Labrador, Ace, who he would take pheasant hunting in Eastern Washington. He’d come back with a beautiful bird, pluck it and clean it, and cook up the rich meat with a can of cream of mushroom soup and serve the saucy mixture over a bed of egg noodles. My mouth waters at the memory. Some of his other specialties included fat, juicy burgers cooked on the grill and classic BLTs that were the perfect balance of crunchy and squishy. (If that sounds weird, you haven’t had the right kind of BLT.)
When it came to baked goods, my dad kept making my mom’s classics: zucchini bread with walnuts, and good old apple pie. He always said the pie wasn’t nearly as good as my mom’s, but I loved it, especially when we ate it for breakfast, topped with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese.
Growing up on five acres in rural Washington state, I was pretty damn spoiled. Every year for Christmas, my dad would head outside with the chainsaw and cut down a noble fir — sometimes as tall as 12 feet — and drag it inside. (One time we used a holly tree instead. Would not recommend.) But we didn’t just have trees; my dad, a certified master gardener, grew thyme and rosemary, blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb, apples, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. As a kid tasked with picking blueberries for dozens of hours each summer, I got sick of them and didn’t appreciate how good they were. But a recent visit to the homestead, in which I popped handfuls of fat berries into my mouth, changed my perspective pretty quickly.
All of this has shaped the way I think about food and cooking: It’s taught me that local and fresh is great, when you can afford it or you have it on hand, but cream of mushroom soup from the can is just fine, too. It’s taught me to try your hardest to never waste food, and that if it still looks, smells and tastes okay, it’s probably still perfectly fine to eat. It’s taught me that home cooking is the best way to save money and know what you’re putting into your body, that it’s one of the best ways to keep someone’s memory alive and pass down traditions, and that it’s a really fun way to show someone you love and care about them.
As I’ve grown as a home cook, I’ve built on these tenets, experimenting with recipes and forming my own ideas and values. As much as I love cooking for other people, in my early 20s, I often cooked for myself. That meant I could make dishes exactly how I liked them (or how I thought I would like them). Now that I cook for two people, I can’t quite do that anymore. But cooking is still about indulging. Maybe it means making a bloody Mary from scratch (tomatoes and all), just because I can. Or maybe it’s making pad Thai every other week because it’s just. so. good. For me, these indulgences — these acts of immoderation — are really acts of love for myself and for everyone else at the table.
All that said, some people just don’t like cooking, and that’s fine. For me, it’s how I unwind. The methodical chopping and stirring (usually with a glass of wine in hand and Buffy, Twin Peaks or Mad Men on in the background) is a form of therapy. And there’s no better feeling than creating a truly great dish. As much as I try to be efficient and cook dishes quickly, that’s just not my style. I savor the process, get distracted by Special Agent Cooper or Peggy Olson, or I just fail at multitasking. It’s become a running joke with friends that if I they come over for dinner at 7, we’ll probably eat around 10. But that’s what snacks are for, right?
This is not a blog about easy lunches or 20-minute dinners. Those recipes are incredibly helpful, but if I tried to write a recipe for a 20-minute meal, it would probably end up taking an hour and a half, helping absolutely no one. This blog will share the recipes I love, which often take more than an hour and involve a dozen or more ingredients. This blog is a love letter to the act of cooking, which itself is an act of love.
Years ago, my grandmother gave me an old sepia-tone photo of my mother, framed. She’s 19 and is the picture of the 70s, with a pixie cut and a plaid shirt peeking out of her sweater. Most of my visitors think it’s a picture of me. (Come on, you really think I would hang up a big picture of myself?) The photo fits perfectly in a nook in my kitchen, right beside the stove. I joke that with her looking down on me, maybe I’ll soak up some of her incredible gourmet cooking powers through osmosis. But really, when I’m stirring risotto or frying eggs and look up to see her smiling down on me, I feel more connected to her than any other time. Even though I remember little about her, cooking and our passion for it is something we share.
That, to me, is the power of cooking: It brings people together, it is an expression of love, and, in a small way, it can transcend even death.