When you head into the kitchen to cook, you are grounding yourself in life and the world through your senses
One afternoon in the late 90s my friend Paul invited me to come help him do some maintenance at his organic farm outside of Athens. In return, he said, I could take home all the fresh tomatoes that I wanted and any other items that struck my fancy, within reason, of course.
When I read this article about a program in Texas in which military veterans grow and cook their own food, I immediately thought of that day from 1998, and how connected I felt to the world, to myself and to my friend with whom I harvested and prepared the makings of an amazing meal.
Out under the hot sun, among the neat rows of staked tomato plants and lacy green carrot tops, we worked in companionable silence, luxuriating in the peacefulness. The only sounds were the chirring of the cicadas and the occasional hoarse cawing of crows in the treetops at the edges of the field.
A fresh tomato is a wondrous thing. No refrigeration has had a chance to render it mealy. No grocery chain has sprayed it with wax or ethylene gas-ripened it in the back of a truck. The vines themselves have a pleasantly pungent, almost sweaty smell, a sharp greenness that lingers on your hands when you pick the ripened fruit.
We dug pink-skinned potatoes from the soil that reminded me of brightly-dyed Easter eggs. We trimmed dill sprigs and pea pods, cut curly leaves of lemon basil and parsley and pulled up long, slender, blaze orange carrots.
Then, as the sun began to dip behind the treetops, we hauled a couple of wheel barrow-loads of bounty back with us to his house at the edge of the woods and cooked one of the finest meals Ive ever had. We fried up a fresh trout and some green tomatoes. We boiled the potatoes until they were tender and tossed them with diced red onion in a vinaigrette loaded with the herbs wed picked.
Its been almost 20 years since then, but I still remember the soul-deep feeling of satisfaction that welled up in me as we pushed back our chairs and groaned that we were too full, even, to finish the bowl of strawberries and blackberries wed picked, then washed and dusted with sugar.
Not everyone has the time and talent to grow their own food, obviously. I personally have managed to kill every plant, potted or otherwise, that I have tried to grow. Its probably lucky that Paul only allowed me around his crops once it was too late for me to murder them through inattention, overwatering or too little sunlight.
Cooking, however, is something I believe everyone should be able to access as a route to joy and a concrete way of sharing that joy with others.
When you head into the kitchen to cook, to smell and touch and taste, you are grounding yourself in life and the world through your senses. You focus your concentration and work wondrous alchemies, combining earthly ingredients with fire, air and water and transforming them into so much more than the sum of their parts.
I cant count the number of black moods I have sent packing by kneading dough or chopping up a salad. If you want to watch this magic happen in real time, watch this video of Martha Stewart making shrimp cocktail on Facebook Live.
The lifestyle maven opens the video by saying shes in a bad mood after getting stuck in traffic for more than an hour on her way to the filming session. Within about 10 minutes, though, Stewart is ebullient, barely able to contain her enthusiasm, telling funny stories and gamely answering questions from viewers.
Cooking can be a drudgery, yes, especially in a world where most peoples idea of making dinner consists of juggling takeout menus or shutting the microwave door and hitting Start. If you make time for it, however, Ive found that it can be an express route to feeling better about life, a way to be creative that produces instant dividends.
For so many people, our daily lives and work revolve around abstract tasks that we perform repetitively, organizing piles of paper or pixels on screens. We dont even get to hold our wages in our hand anymore thanks to direct deposits.
The joy of making a delicious meal or a luscious dessert is the joy of a project conceived, executed and completed. That joy is compounded when we share it with people about whom we care.
Vanity Fair magazine does a monthly Proust Questionnaire in which they ask famous people a number of purportedly illuminating questions, among which is What is your idea of perfect happiness?
For me that answer is simple and its always the same: Good friends and family gathered around the table.