It seems to me that love is only incidentally concerned with feelings of reciprocity, mastery, or even pleasure. We know love by a sudden sense of vulnerability, from the necessity but still almost unbearable touch of someone’s hand against our heart a touch, however poor the fit, that we never want to let go. And it is just here that loving and cooking intersect. Cooking, after all, before it ever became a craft, a hobby, or just another family chore, is what happens when our hand first closes on what we mean to eat to the moment it puts it in our mouth. That time can be a few seconds, or minutes, hours or even days. Eating is the communion that connects us; making the flesh of the world the flesh of ourselves.
And when people say flatly that I must love to cook, since I not only write about food but make it, I wince a little, I cringe, invisibly. Why must I love it, just because I do it as well as I can? Are they really saying that I love myself? – M.F.K. Fisher
In our kitchens, we clean and anoint its body with oils and perfume, making it beautiful and sweet in the process with whatever skill and craft that we possess, though we have so wrapped this act in the language of sanitation and technical jargon that we almost forget that this is the core of a cooks real calling. Buried perhaps but never lost.
To immerse oneself in the world of food is to feel something of the tremor of the heart, some vulnerability to the attraction of the world as flesh, a feeling that evokes both tenderness and terror. Eating is an amazing and frightening thing, an act of both sustenance and contamination, a lust for connection and a closing with corruption. Little wonder that our feelings about food are so elusive and complex.
Our appetite, turned loose upon the world, would eat it all; our fears, if we ever wholly listened, would starve us to death. And the balance between them is no easy mediation; rather it is an endless tug of war. Fear jerks and we slink off and suck on a piece of dry toast; appetite hauls us back and we gorge on raw oysters, feast on mushrooms picked on impulse from the musty forest.
To be a cook then, is to literally lay your hands on the body of the world. Those who do it just because they must have learned to keep their distance, an easy task these days, with our senses so weakened and so many things standing in between. But to truly love to cook is to feel that flesh itself, to be open and vulnerable to what they touch entails a tremor of connection to the heart of what we eat.Cooking then is not just about love, it is about loving. I come closest to feeling this when I just cook for myself. The more others intrude, the more complex and confusing the equation. Turned loose in the kitchen by myself, I feel an intimate connection that seems almost illicitly intense, exactly why so many wont cook for themselves at all and other escape into a can.
We, the real cooks of the world, want more. Satiety is an end only after we have used it as a means putting hands, eyes, nose, and mouth into play, pulling out of scraps and crusts, something messy, greasy, crunchy and good. Only during such private moments do we dare such intimacy, rubbing appetite right up against the razors edge where it lives most fiercely, the very line where our terror threatens to turn into disgust.
This is the secret desire that the real cook clutches close to his or her heart and what makes cooking mean more than any mastery. To tease the tongue and calm the fearful heart, to bring our appetite to where the eggs are eaten runny, the meat served rare and juicy, the cheese not parted from its mold to lay our tongue against the movement of the world’s own body and not faint dead away. This is where love is and what real cooking is all about.