The chemistry of turning raw ingredients into something delicious is only one of the joys of cooking.
When I was maybe nine or ten, I got a cookbook for Christmas or my birthday. It was a volume designed with what I think of now as a cheery, 70s’-style enthusiasm for children’s psyches. Composed of menus for meals from cultures around the world, it brimmed with colorful illustrations and typography, inviting to look at and read, whether or not you made any of its recipes. If I could look at it now, I would probably see that its representation of various cultures relied on stereotypes that I now find reductive, just as I can now see that so much of white, middle-class “multiculturalism” has had problematic blinders of privilege circumscribing it. Still, the cookbook invited its child-readers to consider a world of flavors and textures beyond the one-meat, one-veg, one-potato-dish meal that made up the standard American dinner then (and probably still). It was my introduction to a literal wide world of cuisines, and although its menus and versions of foods were adapted to both kid and American tastes and pantries, it awoke an awareness in me of there being more, much more, available than I could see around me in my everyday life. There was certainly much more to the art of cooking than I saw in my public school’s cafeteria, and more than I saw on my table at home, even though my parents were relatively adventurous cooks, given the circumstances of our lives and their upbringings.
What I did know well, unlike many of my peers, was what it was like to eat vegetables from a garden and home-baked breads of all kinds. From the time I was born in 1970, my mother made whole-wheat breads, rolls, pizzas, waffles, pancakes, biscuits — any baked item we ate was likely to be whole-grain and fresh. While my friends ate Wonderbread sandwiches stuffed with bologna and American cheese and Miracle Whip from their lunchboxes, I pulled crunchy-peanut-butter and homemade jam sandwiches on leftover whole-wheat waffles out of mine. By any measure, that made me weird, and I didn’t love that sensation. But we develop taste-preferences pretty strongly when we’re young, and the truth was that even by elementary school, I mostly preferred the homemade granola, hummus with pita bread, and spinach-rice casseroles that made our meals distinct from our neighbors’.
So for a time, before I hit junior high, I dabbled in making international food from that cookbook. What I can remember most clearly is the Chinese-food menu, in particular, the fortune cookies that my mother and I painstakingly assembled, with fortunes we’d typed and cut into strips ourselves, quickly folding the tiny pancakes of warm-from-the-griddle dough around the paper and propping them in an egg-carton to cool and crisp. The egg-drop soup that made the first course of that meal was magical to a kid: as you carefully dribbled the beaten eggs in a thin, steady stream into boiling broth, they transformed into silky, gossamer noodles. It was impressive: you could make something in your kitchen that looked and tasted like dishes you’d ordered in a restaurant.
That was the beginning of a change in how I thought about food, the mystery of from-scratch transformation relocating from a place — the distant, adult-run kitchen — to an interaction between the raw materials, the instruments, and a person who could even, it seemed, be a kid.
Over years, my relationship with the kitchen and its adjuncts — the garden, the farmers’ market, the grocery store, and all the purveyors of gadgetry for the art and craft of cooking — has undergone numerous transformations itself. I was the awestruck novice who became, for a short time in my mid-teens, the family’s main dinner-chef. After not cooking much of anything beyond ramen in college, my senior-year roommate and I embarked on a determined campaign to be healthy vegetarians and made nearly everything in the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook. From years of vegetarian stir-fries and pasta-dishes, I transformed for a while again, practicing succulent salmon bakes and pork tenderloins studded with garlic and rosemary fresh from the herb-garden. There were also years at a time when cooking felt like nothing but drudgery and I ate more store-bought cereal for dinner than I’d like to admit. Those were the years when long work-days left me with little creative energy for feeding myself anything better than sustenance-fare.
But my fascination with the complex chemistry of food, like any good weed, has always reseeded itself amply enough to re-establish eventually, growing most recently into a fondness for all manner of baked goods leavened with sourdough (brioche! cornbread! waffles! focaccia! English muffins! bagels!), and a determination to convert as many (vegetarian) recipes into Instant Pot triumphs as possible.
Difficult as it can be to carve out both the time and the energy to become an author of these daily transformations of leaves, fruits, grains, fats, and sugars into nutritious meals, let alone to consider and marvel at them, they are worth it if we can. Even the simplest meals are substantial. The wealth of human knowledge — and history — that resides in the conversion of ground wheat, water, microbes, time, and heat to something as mouth-watering and nourishing as bread is a marvel in itself. Just going to the market, chopping onions on a board, warming fat over a flame, caramelizing tough, bitter plants to tender sweetness, each step connects us to countless people, beloved, long-gone, and never-known, around the world and deep into time, stretching out before and after us.