“Cooking gives you a chance to practice the esoteric art of manifestation - bringing something from the imagination into physical reality.” -Andrew Weil
There's a dichotomy in how our culture views the act of preparing food. It's either looked upon as the realm of domestic drudgery, historically the sad lot of the paid domestic worker or unliberated "housewife", or we exalt it as the domain of high-end visionary chefs.
But is cooking not a daily act of creativity available to us all? Is it not the empowering act of fulfilling our basic need for nourishment in a way of our choosing?
This is a defence of cooking. Actually, defence may not be the right word (cooking isn't on trial)...perhaps an urge to reconsider. Food prep is up there on the list of mundane tasks our modern society seems to have agreed are not worthy of our time. It's a chore we've tried to escape by delegating it increasingly to grocery chains, big food manufacturers, and take-out restaurants. It's implicit in our desire for university educations - so we can find careers that lift us out of drudgery to do things that are more "valuable" and "worthwhile". In no way do I mean to pass judgment on anyone for seeking food shortcuts - modern life isn't conducive to feeding ourselves well by our own hand. Nor do I mean to suggest that we shouldn't venture out of our kitchens for post-secondary learning! What I am suggesting is that there is meaning and reward in cooking that may have been forgotten in our haste to escape it.
REIFY: "To make something abstract more concrete or real"
When we make a meal, we pull disparate ingredients together into a cohesive whole through an act of culinary creation. Cooking can be a channel for our creativity if we want it to be - maybe not every day, but occasionally as inspiration strikes or time allows. Actually, a time crunch or sparsity of ingredients can be great catalysts for spontaneous creativity. After work, everyone's hungry and you start throwing unexpected, presumed incompatible things in to the scrambled eggs just to use them up. Or whatever the garden is offering is quickly plucked and mingled in a simple, but sublime rendering of the season. Suddenly you have a meal where minutes ago there wasn't one.
What is this other than an act of creation?
It doesn't have to be a work of art to be creative. Just as no one needs formal voice training to belt out a song for fun, so cooking is a natural arena for expression available to us all every day. The stakes aren't high if it doesn't go well - just one meal; tomorrow you can begin again. And though everything from the weather to nostalgia to a new recipe can serve as your inspiration, the ingredients themselves will never let you down as a prompt. As they say, "what grows together goes together". Thus spring strawberries partner well with their fellow spring crop of asparagus; less well with a fall cabbage, perhaps. This is a nice way to let the constraints of seasonal availability steer your creations. (But feel free to turn this and all conventions on their head to pursue a sort of punk-rock of the palate where the resulting dissonance may just be a revelation!)
When I opened Hereabouts B&B, an acquaintance congratulated me saying, "Providing food and shelter is sacred work". It felt like a profound affirmation. Not only can cooking be creative, it can be sacred. The ingredients we handle - non-human life forms brought forth by a whole other process of creativity - give us direct interaction with the rest of the natural world. And if you cook for children or others in your life it becomes an offering, a handmade gift bearing the signature of your hand-chopping and seasoning to taste.
If I've not yet convinced you that the preparation of food can, at least sometimes, be a valuable use of time - a creative, even sacred act, then consider yet one more point of persuasion: the sensory and tangible nature of cooking. How many areas of your life can you say produce a physical result from your labours almost immediately? Or indulge all of your senses from the visual beauty of the raw materials and the tactile nature of working with them, to the aromas and flavours that emerge and even the pleasing sound of onions meeting oil in a pan?
I know that feeding ourselves is an endless endeavour and I understand it will often feel like little more than a mundane chore - one that we'll sometimes happily delegate to a third party. But approaching it as an opportunity for expression, pleasure, and awareness helps pull it out from the margins of either thankless toil or haute cuisine and into the realm of a valued daily craft.