A calendar hangs above my table; The table where I write these letters to you every week. It’s a flip calendar, and on start of every month, it showcases a new picture. This month’s picture depicts an ancient community of people baking flatbread on a flat piece of rock, as part of this year’s theme; The ascent of humanity over it’s history. The cooking and food implements depicted in the picture is rudimentary, plain and meant purely to sustain. Even though, the painter most likely did not intend to showcase cooking as a primary aspect of the painting, I found the emphasis on it’s foreground very relatable.
Cooking has become a very functional endaveour for me. I don’t try to hone my cooking skills, neither do I try to gather recipes and cook a new meal every night. I cook so that I get something to eat; Sometimes I cook meals for days in advance. I am inconsistent, almost never producing similar meal twice. I don’t even need to cook, it’s just cheaper.
But it wasn’t always like that. When I started cooking, recipes were important blackboxes of instructions, almost like an instruction card on a Jacquard loom. I follow the steps, and I get food at the end. As time went by, I kept getting lost in overhead that’s inherent in the act of following a recipe; It usually boils down to the assortment of ingredients one has access to; The appropriateness in the amount of ingredients one can gather, portioning the cookable materials to a point where everything settles on a comfortable lowest common multiple; Understanding the subtleties in a recipes that the author had not elaborated on, possibly because she figured it to be unimportant; And there’s no practical way to verify whatever I cooked is exactly how the author of the recipe intended it to be. That bothered me for quite some time, until I realised recipes were never meant to be followed like scientific literature. It merely acts as a guide. There are chunks of abstractions that do come in handy from time to time, but in the end, if that’s the case with recipes, I wondered why cooking has to be a “skill”.
The beauty of cooking for myself is that no one else is eating what I cook; I don’t even need construct a name for whatever I cook, let alone making it taste appriopriate. I can put earthy Icelandic herbs and quintessentially Indian garam masala in the same boiling pot and still make it oddly tasty, I can cook a single dish for months on end before making any changes, I can almost drop any vegetables in boiling water, and still get something warm to slurp on a cold winter night. There’s a sublime lack of judgement in cooking for oneself. In contrast, when cooking for others, one tends to cook into the narrative of said meal, for obvious reasons; But when that constraint is lifted, an individual is free to do whatever she wants with the ingredients they have, as long as they are able to shed their own framework of food; They can become the arbiter of their own taste, free of descriptions, names and preconcieved notions of a what makes a meal, meal. I find that brilliantly liberating.
Not unlike Alec Soth’s take on photograhpy, cooking for oneself is a lonely act, it’s muddled with repetition and trips to the grocery store; Grinding away on a chopping board or on the kitchen sink, washing, cleaning and rinsing. Cranking blenders or pressing limes, over and over. Novelty of new preparations wear off pretty quickly, so does the short lived burst of motivation driven by YouTube videos and cookbooks. Unless it’s a hobby, it has to become a habit. It is, as Charles Bukowski would put it, “a test of your endurance”. But the notion that cooknig is a skill on it’s own, is blurry at best, embedded in our cultural furniture. In proliferation of culinary arts and it’s standards and conventions, I think we forgot the sheer ability to turn something raw into something edible, though rudimentary and archaic, is something to be cherished, like our ancerstors and theirs.