Cooking For Others

For me, and it turns out, lots of other folks, cooking is about love.

It really is that simple.

If I didn’t have a family, or roommates or friends, and I didn’t work as a chef or line cook–in other words, if I was completely and utterly alone, I probably wouldn’t cook much that was interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t write a food blog.

Cooking for myself is bloody boring, not to mention a pain in the wazoo–why make that much of a mess just for myself? Especially since it would be myself cleaning up that mess without help or companionship in the kitchen.

So, were it just me, there would be no Beouf Bourguignon, Hillbilly Fried Rice or Panko Fried Catfish. No Chicken with Bitter Melon. No Thai Green Curry. No Bacon-Filled Waffles with Chili-Fried Apples. Nothing that really required multiple steps, lots of oil, large vegetables, hand-made curry pastes, special electric appliances or leftovers.

It isn’t as if I would never cook at all.

I would probably still make simple Indian curries, very simple stir-fried dishes, soups, dals, and easy cold noodles, and quick hot pastas, but falafel would be out of the question.

If it was just me, I would barely bake. Why make cheesecake just for yourself? Or Aphrodite Cakes? Or Aztec Gold Brownies? Or even my beloved sour cherry pie, for goodness sake? No one should eat an entire pie, for various reasons, and if I wasn’t going to eat the entire thing and it was just me, well, then, I would just not bake the pie in the first place.

Luckily, few cooks live in completely isolation. We almost always have someone around for whom to cook and it is a good thing too. Not just for our waistlines, but for our sanity as well.

I fully believe that most people who love to cook, and this includes line cooks and chefs, do so not only because they love food and the challenge of working alchemical arts upon it, but because they love people, and their favored way of showing that love is through feeding them.

Every great chef or cook I have ever known, even the cynical and cranky ones, even the most crusty and snide ones, all have a heart filled with love for other people, and the desire to show that love through the most intimate act of cooking them food which feeds both body and soul. Often all of that cranky, crusty and cynical demeanor is armor which protects those sweet and loving hearts from the slings and arrows that an often rough world flings in a professional kitchen.

Most home cooks I have known are the same way; they will not hesitate to cook for their loved ones, but can’t be bothered to do much more than scrambled eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches for themselves. My Gram, from whom I learned to cook fried chicken and delicious beef vegetable soup, and who taught both my mother and I how to make homemade noodles, as she got older and after Pappa died, barely cooked for herself. I would go to her house on weekends and cook for her, even though I was in the middle of a divorce and was living forty-five minutes away. I did it because I loved her, she was losing much needed body weight and she would delighted eat whatever high-calorie food I would create for her, and would dutifully heat up the leftovers over the week.

After going to see Julie & Julia with me, Heather said that the main reason she is moving into a house filled with young roomates was so she would have someone to cook for. She had already made her reputation as a cook in her office by bringing batches of Aphrodite Cakes and Aztec Gold Brownies to share, but she wants to do more. (And, as she noted on her Facebook page, she now wants to learn French food! Yeah, Julia–still inspirational after all of these years!)

When she said that, Dan, who also went to see it with us, pointed out that Neil Peart, famed drummer for Rush, has a food blog on his website. In the opening essay of the blog, Peart talks about how he learned to cook for his first wife when she was ill, and as such, has come to see cooking as a very visceral expression of love. Left to his own devices, he’d not cook–he doesn’t love it for itself. He loves cooking for the people he loves– and that is a distinction that I believe most people would understand and agree with.

My first guinea pig, I mean, cooking student, Bill, figured it all during the hours of a long evening of the two of us cooking a multi-course Chinese feast at the home of a friend who had never tasted our food before.

It was a stressful evening for Bill–me–I was in my element. When we had gone to Krogers here in Athens (we were visiting from Maryland), I had found that there was no ground pork to be had, so I had shrugged, bought pork shoulder and loin and had declared I would simply mince it by hand with two matched cleavers–mine and Bill’s. This process is loud and flashy, and before long, half of the twenty-odd diners had popped their heads into the smallish kitchen to see what the ruckus was about.

Bill worked quickly and efficiently, but had the air of a wild rabbit harried by hounds–breathless and wide-eyed.

By the time we served the first course, a hot and sour soup fragrant with lemongrass and galangal, Bill’s face had taken on the look of a whitetail deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler on a rainy night. He was terrified.

I whispered in his ear, “Relax. Remember, no apologies, and no fears. Ever.”

When everyone had filed through the kitchen and ladled up their soup, he and I both two small bowls, and slipped into the nearly silent living room.

I say nearly silent because while there was a lot of sipping and noisy slurping going on, no one, but no one was talking.

Everyone’s head was bowed over their bowls as they busily ate the soup in great gulps.

I smiled, sat and sipped my soup, while watching everyone else eat.

When I looked up, Bill was sitting across from me on a floor pillow. He hadn’t touched his soup, even though he hadn’t eaten all day.

He was just gazing around, smiling goofily.

“Now I understand,” he whispered, “Why you barely eat anything when you cook for people. You don’t need to.”

I grinned and rose, heading back to the kitchen after finishing my last swallow of my meager bowl of soup.

When Bill followed me, I nodded. “My food is their delight, not the food I cook.”

As he sipped his soup, I turned back to the stove.

“Let’s get back to work,” I said. “Spring rolls can’t roll and fry themselves, you know.”

12 Comments

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  1. I have often opined, both on my blog and in person, that if it weren’t for my family, I’d probably subsist off a diet of shiraz and Cap’n Crunch (oh, a guilty pleasure, that one). And because my 14-year-old is A Picky One, when my husband is out of town I don’t cook as often or as elaborately.

    He’s been gone 2 1/2 weeks and I can’t wait for him to get home tomorrow – I am going to give Rendang Pedang a try this weekend for the first time.

    Comment by Jan — September 1, 2009 #

  2. Interesting. My brother and his family are coming to stay for a few days and I’m really looking forward to cooking for them! I do like to cook for my husbands but our tastes are very different, so its a bit more tricky.

    Comment by jennywenny — September 1, 2009 #

  3. Thank you for putting into words how I so often feel!

    Comment by Josie — September 1, 2009 #

  4. As always I am fascinated/baffled there are so many cooks who don’t like to cook for themselves. I adore it. I can make anything I like, regardless of someone else’s taste, and go at a pace I like, not worrying about someone else’s stomach.

    I solve the mess-cleaning by normally cooking only once or twice a week when eating on my own, and eating leftovers the other days.

    I love to cook for other people too, of course! But I am perfectly capable of keeping a pie in the fridge and eating one slice a day until it’s gone. :)

    Comment by Alexis — September 1, 2009 #

  5. I do like cooking some things for myself–like that eggplant and walnut pasta thing–I love that stuff! But really elaborate stuff that makes a lot like say, Coq au Vin–eh, too much effort.

    And I applaud your ability to make a pie and eat it all piece by piece. I would get tired of it long before it is gone and have to throw it over the hill for the raccoons. (That way, at least someone would get to eat it!)

    Comment by Barbara — September 1, 2009 #

  6. I’m with Alexis: I love to cook for myself and for others as well. And, unfortunately for my waistline, I enjoy eating what I cook almost as much as watching others eat!

    Except for Thanksgiving dinner: that I am content to pick at.

    Thanks for the enjoyment, Barbara!

    Comment by Yogi — September 2, 2009 #

  7. Alexis’ post exactly describes my feelings. I love to give people things that I cook, but I cook whether or not there’s anyone else to eat it. It’s a form of creative expression for me. Giving others the results of my creative expression is definitely an act of love, but I can happily eat it all myself if no one else wants it, thank you. As leftovers, over the course of a week, frozen and taken out of the freezer a week later, whatever. I can’t bear a boring diet.

    Comment by Christy — September 2, 2009 #

  8. I wonder if I could ever get to where I would make myself complicated stuff if it were just me, myself and I to eat it….sure I could freeze stuff, but I dunno.

    I am too lazy when it comes to feeding myself, I guess!

    Comment by Barbara — September 2, 2009 #

  9. I live alone (with three fur babies) and I cook for myself all the time. I love to cook and take lunch to work everyday. My coworkers are always looking at my lunch and wishing it was their’s. :o)

    Comment by Christine — September 2, 2009 #

  10. I love to cook, for myself and others. My husband loves food and enjoys cooking, but he can be a picky eater (he won’t touch seafood at all). I’ll often make dishes for myself that he doesn’t like, with the happy notion that it’s all MINE! Cooking and especially baking and pastry are my creative outlets. I practice these disciplines (and it is very much a spiritual discipline for me) to feed my soul and to comfort my own sanity, just as much as I do it to feed myself, my husband, and other loved ones. There are some who cook as the expression of love for others and to comfort and nourish loved ones; others cook to feed their creative muse.

    Comment by Roxanne — September 6, 2009 #

  11. I am one like that, I will cook with all my heart when I do it for somebody, and will definitely glow with joy when they enjoy it.

    Comment by rokh — September 8, 2009 #

  12. I gotta say, when I was living alone and just going to grad school, your stir fries (especially when it comes down to being more of a formula than a recipe) made up a huge portion of my diet. I didn’t want to rely on convenience food, had a CSA subscription so I got lots of veggies, was just cooking for my little ol’ lonesome self, and had a busy schedule so I didn’t want anything too elaborate and time-consuming.

    And leftover stir fry usually reheats pretty well. I usually cut your recipes by half and had enough for two meals for just myself.

    Every now and then I would cook something more elaborate just for myself, but that always had a twinge of sadness to it that I didn’t have anybody to share it with. I would justify it by telling myself I was honing my technique and that it was better to experiement on myself in case I messed up, before I tried making this dish for someone else.

    I like cooking for just myself, but when I have other people to cook for it certainly kicks things up several notches (to use the expression). Though, my friends think the stuff I cook just for myself is still pretty impressive. I guess it’s still more than just making some Kraft Easy Mac.

    But I do really look forward to when I get to cook dinner for family or friends because it’s an excuse to get fancy. One of the things I was looking forward to about moving in with my boyfriend is that I could cook for him more! It’s one of those few stereotypically female things that this tomboy doesn’t mind too much.

    And then I get a warm fuzzy feeling when people are eating my food and make lots of yummy noises and act like I pulled off some sort of amazing feat by creating this meal, which really wasn’t THAT much trouble, and say I should be a chef even though, no offense, I don’t think I’d ever want to be one.

    So yeah, cooking for others vs. cooking for just yourself… um… well, what comes to mind is a certain OTHER activity you can either do by yourself or with a partner, and the comparative enjoyment you gain from each is, in my opinion, similar, but this is a G-rated blog. ;-)

    Comment by Neohippie — September 15, 2009 #

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