Once I grew up and moved out on my own, or should I say, moved out on my own, I started cooking. Superficially, it was out of necessity to cook so I could save money while I was attending university, although I started to enjoy it. Lately I have been thinking a bit more about why I like to cook and what has influenced me to do it. There is one thing I learned about myself: which is that when I’m feeling depressed or anxious or tired or stressed, or all of the above, my interest in cooking wanes because my appetite decreases. I know then that I need to make adjustments in my life so that I no longer feel that way. When I become interested in food again I know I am feeling better.
I’ve come up with a number of reasons why I enjoy cooking. They are for the same reasons that I enjoy playing the piano, drums or other instrument, or why I enjoy writing or hiking. Cooking is a creative and relaxing process. I get to exercise different parts of my brain in comparison to when I am analyzing data for eight hours a day. When I bake, I am sure to be more careful to follow recipes, although sometimes I will substitute where necessary if I can’t find a particular ingredient or if I just feel like doing something different. That is the creative part. Obviously there is measurement necessary when baking because otherwise the cake/cookies/tart or whatever will not turn out if the incorrect amount of flour is put into the mixer, for example. When cooking, sometimes I don’t use any recipe. I will of course have read or gotten some ideas from recipes, but I can just wing it. Sometimes my experiments work and sometimes they don’t. Doing this is even more creative.
I considered becoming a chef, but then thought about the off-nine-to-five hours nature of the business and whether I would start to hate my beloved hobby because I had to do it for a living. I also thought about how it would affect my relationships with my partner, because of the range of work hours involved. I also considered the financial ramifications, given that I would probably take a pay cut if I changed careers. Given all of those pragmatic considerations I decided that I would continue to cook for fun, although I understand very well why some people are passionate about food and want to cook for a living. Besides, I already started down a different career path and invested lots of time and money in my education, so it is more practical for me this way.
What else influences me to cook, besides the chance to be creative and save money?
I simply enjoy the entire process of cooking. I like to go to the market to see what’s around, and enjoy finding ingredients I’ve never used before. It’s fun. My partner likes going to the market with me. It is quality time with him. I like coming home and prepping everything, using the food processor or mixer or other tools. While I am doing this, I manage to think about nothing else except what I am doing in that very moment. I don’t think about why we’re screwed. No one is busting my ass about how I should do this or that. I am totally in control of what I do and how the final product turns out. I can simultaneously escape my worries and be in complete control of what I am doing. Afterward, I get to spend more quality time with family and friends eating. That’s really the most fun.
Growing up, my mother spent countless hours cooking and reading recipes. When my sister and I were young she would bake and decorate our birthday cakes. She is a virtual encyclopedia of food knowledge; even her mother had a library of cookbooks. This past summer, I was hanging out in my parents’ backyard and my mom made an obscure reference to a food ingredient most average people have never heard of and I said, “What is that?”. My mother is the most talented self-trained “chef” I know and in my opinion, she has outshined some trained chefs. So far the vanilla bean cheesecake she made was her most legendary dessert. She made it years ago, but everyone who tried it is still talking about it. I mention desserts here, but she can really cook, I tell ya. I should give my dad credit too. When he has the time for it he can find his way around the kitchen.
One very distinct memory I have about food is from visiting my great-grandmother (my “Nanny”), as a kid with my mom and aunt. We were eating chicken soup with pastina for lunch. I was complaining that I wasn’t hungry, but I was tricked into eating all of my soup as I was told by my mom and Nanny that I’d find a “surprise” if I finished all of it. The “surprise” was that I got to see the design at the bottom of the bowl. I remember feeling totally duped, and very disappointed about how anticlimactic that was. “What? Just a stupid bowl design? So not exciting!”. What a spoiled kid I was, getting to eat homemade soup. No appreciation!
My Nanny has been gone for a number of years now. I no longer need encouragement to eat an entire bowl of soup; just thinking about the times I got to have a bowl of chicken soup with Nanny, made by Nanny, is enough to make me eat it now.
Another time, when we went to visit Nanny to eat some of her infamous potatoes (aka “Nanny Potatoes” in my family circle), she told a story about her husband, who had passed away many years back. She said he came home one day to tell her he had bought a horse. She thought that the purchase of a horse was wholly unnecessary and when telling this story to us she exclaimed, “So, he comes home and says he bought a horse! Great! Now we had to pay to feed the f&!king horse!”. Keep in mind my Nanny never, ever swore. She still felt so strongly about the purchase of the horse after so many years that she dropped the f-bomb. We still laugh like crazy when we think about Nanny swearing like that.
My Nanny was of Italian descent (she was my grandfather’s mother), and both my mother and Nonna (who came directly from Italy and is my grandfather’s wife) make the same chicken soup with pastina. At family functions this soup is typically the first course and it is followed by the 85 other tasty dishes my Nonna makes to go along with it. When we were sick with the cold or flu in the middle of winter my mom would make chicken soup with pastina for my sister and I.
At family functions at Christmastime, my great-aunts would have my family over for a huge open house dinner to eat a traditional Italian meal with no meat; only fish. Bacula (cod), calamari (squid) and soup with spinach and homemade gnocchi. My great-aunt’s daughter is a pastry chef, so lots of Cannoli were available, much to my delight, and there was plenty of alcoholic stuff to drink for the grown-ups. I hated the smell of seafood as a kid, but dad couldn’t wait to pig out on fish. Now, having cooked a few meals myself, albeit for smaller groups, I can greatly appreciate the effort that was put in to make the food for these huge family get-togethers and by making this effort, it showed how important la famiglia was.
So, there you have it. Those are the main reasons why I cook. I experience complete autonomy when I do it. It is easy way to escape everyday stress, and it is rewarding. When I don’t feel like cooking it is a signal that I need to think about my mental health and that is a good thing.
Cooking reminds me about my childhood, and about all of the fun and laughs (and sometimes, dysfunction) that comes from spending time with my family and friends, even if I am currently living far away from them. Most of all, sharing food is central to bringing back fond memories of family members, like my Nanny, who have since departed this planet.