a very poorly written essay on my love of cooking
I never grew up with a mother who baked perfect chocolate chip cookies, or roasted turkeys for Thanksgiving, or for that matter, cooked a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I dreaded her lackadaisical attempts in the kitchen, knowing that the food that would soon be ladled onto one of our blue ceramic plates, would make me cringe and gag. When all my friends had a mother who would bake them perfect looking birthday cakes, mine mastered the scorching of attempted chocolate molten cakes. Most nights my mom would leave me alone while she went on her two hour long runs around Portland. A familiar feeling of forlornness gnawed at me until I realized that I needed to fill the absence with something that made me both happy and satisfied. I was beyond simple arts and crafts by the age of six, often too tired to read, and left seeking an alternate form of stimulation rather than television. There was not much else that I could do to prevent that dreaded feeling of being alone from seeping into my pores, so I learned to busy myself with chopping onions, julienning carrots, peeling apples, and braising chicken thighs. The cookbooks that lined my shelves offered no insight, but my instinct was a pretty accurate gauge as to what would work and what would not. This was my coping mechanism. At just about eight o’clock every night, the back door would creak ever so slightly, signaling my mom’s return from her workout. Five minutes later, we would be sitting in our dimly lit kitchen, speaking only rarely, satiating ourselves with grilled chicken and leeks, smelling faintly of the charcoal grill outside. The aromas that wafted from the food I presented her with, were tangible to the love I had for her. Subtle. Strong. Real.
Not long after, I began baking cakes for anyone who was expecting a birthday, muffins for the sole purpose of it being a dreary Tuesday, and apple pies filled with Pink Ladies, Galas, and Cortlands, for instant gratification. As the years continued to pass, my hands grasped the knack for creaming butter and sugar without an electric mixer or a whisk, my mind no longer needed a recipe to follow, my taste grew a bit more refined, my perception of food had officially changed. Food wasn’t just something that satisfied a grumbling stomach- it served many more purposes than that. Food transports me into an entirely different mindset, an entirely different world, and most importantly, a separate peace from reality. The amount of joy that I experience when I consume a meal that clearly has a conceptual origin, and furthermore exhibits perceptive plating, and dimensional flavors. I have been moved by a handful of dishes in my life, due to either their aesthetic pleasance, or their innovativeness. There was one dish however, that changed my life. In South Korea, during the summer of 2010, I lived with a native family, who while didn’t particularly enjoy cooking, certainly enjoyed eating food. One evening my host sister, Hyun, took me five or six blocks down the street to this quaint Korean barbecue dive, that slightly resembled an obscure Domino’s Pizza location that no one visits. Inside, I found myself sitting across from Hyun, separated by an open flame, where pork belly soaked in red wine, cloves, star anise, and brown sugar, seared. Alongside the pork, laid paper-thin slices of garlic crisping beautifully. On my plate was a large piece of red lettuce, a sesame leave, jalapeños, bean sprouts, freshly made mustard, and sweet rice flour powder. When the server turned off our flame, I picked out a piece of pork, placed it on top of the mountain of fresh ingredients laid on my plate, topped it with some crispy garlic, and followed after Hyun’s lead. As if it were a sandwich, I rolled the leaf of lettuce up around the pork, and took a bite. What I tasted will never be described accurately, but the natural flavors of the pork were accentuated by the joviality of the sesame leaf, the tang of the mustard, the sweetness of the rice flour powder, and the heat of the jalapeños. This dish tasted familiar to me, yet I had never tasted anything like it before. It brought me home, to my grandmother’s Vietnamese Market on Washington Avenue ten years ago, it brought me into the kitchen of Local 188, where I dabble in frequent salad making, it brought me to a sesame tree orchard in eastern South Korea. It made me think of the summertime, feel the nomadic breeze on my skin, hear the sounds of the vexing gulls, My breathing changed, almost to that of the breath I adopt during a yoga practice; slow, steady, filling. I had never tasted a dish where every ingredient used was highlighted to it’s best taste. Not to mention, I had never imagined that a dish as simple as this, could evoke so many feelings, so many memories, and so many places. An experience like the one in Korea, gives me the same satisfaction as creating the perfect French macaron for a friend.
To plunge my hand into a canister full of coffee beans imported from Columbia, makes my morning worth it. Their smooth shells escape my grasp, and clang against the aluminum sides, producing the slightest most distinct rattle. The natural scent wafts beneath my nose, flitting in and out of my nostrils. Birch wood, cherries, ash, and siena sky are all familiar scents to the start of my morning. Brewing coffee in the morning proves to be just as rewarding as folding homemade pasta dough into little pillows stuffed with ricotta, fresh herbs. If I have enough time, which never seems to happen as often as I wish, I grind my own beans with my mortar and pestle given to me by my aunt in Vietnam. There is always something going on in my kitchen, whether it be tofu draining in a cheese cloth, a fig tarte resting on its cooling rack, or greens soaking in the sink. The inadequate amount of room forces me to get creative, while at the same time being territorial. The unspoken rule in our home is that if I’m in the kitchen, no one else can be within my direct vicinity. My turns are harsh, hands are often flying above my head, yet there is no tangible chaos that ensues. The kitchen naturally has a fast pace, and while it might appear hectic, I have everything under control. And even when I don’t have anything in control, there’s something about being in the kitchen that makes me feel as if everything is alright.
Half of cooking and creating is feeling. The sole sensation of touch can make or break a dish, it connects me to my ingredients, brings me closer to the finished product, and enhances the overall satisfaction I feel when I pull a cake out of the oven, or take a sip of freshly brewed coffee. Knowing that my hands felt the raw ingredients, having delved into a bowl full of flour, salt, and sugar, or running them over the individual leaves of an artichoke forms a connection that cannot be replaced. Moments later, when I finish my last sip of coffee, take a last bite of cake, or swallow the last morsel of stuffed artichoke, my connection has been erased, and I find myself ready to create more. The pieces of art that I create can take hours of my undivided attention, and yet, even with all of that concentration and dedication, the same pieces can be under-appreciated and furthermore, gone, all within five minutes of presenting them to my audience. Yet for some reason, I am unbothered by their lack of understanding or appreciation. Euphoria ensues when I pull anything out of the oven. It’s the general feeling of accomplishment, the feeling that for once, I’ve created something that encompasses my emotions, my values, and my experiences.