Whenever I meet a new person and offhandedly mention that I make most of my meals from scratch, I always get THE LOOK. It’s not a judging or hostile look, but rather a puzzled one. Like a dog tilting their head from side to side when they hear a new noise that they can’t quite figure out. It wasn’t until I had gotten enough of these looks that I finally understood that people were silently wondering why on earth someone would choose to put all that work into feeding themselves. After all, food is just food, right? Something we have to put in our bodies to keep them running. More importantly, in this world full of pre-cut veggies, freezer meals, and pre-made sauces and pie crusts, why wouldn’t you take advantage of all of these wonderful shortcuts?
This post is my attempt to explain and share my love of cooking and answer some of the questions posed above. It could have as easily been titled “Why I Love Food” or “My Cooking Philosophy,” but I wanted to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. Something that you will not find in this post, however, is me telling you how you should cook or what you should or shouldn’t eat. I don’t believe that cooking should be prescriptive; on the contrary, it should be freeing.
So here are 5 reasons why I cook.
It keeps me sane.
Some people bake; some craft; I cook. Preparing a really complicated meal, in particular, is similar to meditating for me. I have a mind that is prone to getting caught in loops of anxious, scattered thoughts. Having to focus on a series of cooking tasks — prepping ingredients, chopping, sautéing — is one of the few things that breaks me out of these loops. The fact that we live in a world that demands that we multitask and pay attention to multiple devices and social media channels at the same time also makes the act of focusing solely on one thing — food preparation — feel soothing. This is not to say, however, that I don’t find cooking stressful, particularly if I’ve had a long week or a bad day. These are the nights when I end up eating leftovers or throw together a simple “fridge” meal. I guess that what I’m saying is that cooking, for me, is one way to practice self care. It feels great when someone puts the time and effort to make us something from scratch, so why do we rarely do the same thing for ourselves?
It pushes me to learn something new every day.
Food is fascinating because there are so many ingredients out there and so many different ways to prepare them. Cooking requires resourcefulness, creativity, and inquisitiveness. It’s not a static process where you passively absorb knowledge and then apply it, but rather a dynamic trial-and-error sort of thing. The tiniest change in how much salt you add to a dish can transform it from something mundane into something delightful. Every time I cook, I have to revisit what I know or think I know about food preparation, and fine tune some of my techniques. But my favorite moments in the kitchen are those when I have a eureka! moment. Like the time I finally learned how to roast a whole chicken in 45 minutes and have it come out with the crispiest, most delicious skin (thank you, Kenji López-Alt). Or the time when, after much experimenting, I was finally able to make fluffy rice on the stove top. Needless to say, failure is a big part of this learning process. I think I’ve learned more from things going terribly awry than from dishes that came out right the first time. And that’s a life lesson right there.
It builds community.
I moved to the U.S. six years ago, on my own, to attend grad school in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are, an experience like that will always be terrifying. As someone who doesn’t make friends easily, I was extremely concerned that I would end up feeling isolated and lonely for the next four years. To my surprise, I quickly found myself part of a wonderful community of international students from all over the world. Since none of us had a lot of money to spend or a car, our get-togethers usually involved meeting at someone’s house to cook a nice meal and spend time together. In hindsight, I think that we were trying to bridge the gaps in language and culture that separated us by giving each other a tiny taste of our culture, past, and traditions.
During this time, I learned to make pasta the Sicilian way, had an epic Saudi dinner sitting on the floor eating the most delicious chicken and rice with my hands, and even had to learn how to cook traditional Costa Rican dishes from other Costa Ricans so that I could help share that part of my culture with everybody else. Six years later that tiny college town has become my home, and food is still the main way in which I form relationships with my community. Living in an agricultural area where fresh produce is abundant has given me the opportunity to get to know local farmers and their families, ask questions, and be more mindful of supporting local business owners who work with local farmers. More importantly, now that most of my close friends have gone back to their home countries or have gotten jobs elsewhere, I have found myself reaching out to new people through food once again. After all, it’s hard not to make friends over a steaming bowl of delicious food.
Seriously. Try turning on some music the next time you make dinner, and I promise you that in no time at all you will find yourself dancing around the kitchen, spatula in hand. But let me give you a concrete example. One of the best times I’ve had in the last few years was making tamales from scratch with my friends Ámbar and Leslie. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I did find it suspicious that they asked me to show up at 10am and to wear comfortable clothes. After about two hours of working masa by hand, I was thankful that I had worn my comfiest jeans. Just as my resolve was wavering, Ámbar had the genius idea to make Palomas (a close cousin of a margarita made with grapefruit soda). We spent the rest of the afternoon tipsily working the masa, assembling the tamales, giggling, and having a blast. At 10pm, I finally left without having tried the tamales because they were, after 12 hours of “hard” work, still not ready. Most people would have called this a fail, but I loved every minute of that day we spent together. And I could give you many more examples of days spent like this: cooking, eating, and sharing with people that I deeply care about.
It keeps me connected to people and places that are far away.
Not only am I an immigrant, but I also have friends and family who have emigrated themselves or who’ve simply moved away. This means that I rarely get to have all “my people” together in the same place at the same time. Other than Skyping or traveling a long way to see them, cooking is one of the few ways I stay connected to the memories that we built together. For instance, my friend Elaina is the best hostess that I know and — before she moved far, far away — she would host epic Oktoberfest parties. I should probably clarify that she is not German and that the whole affair was mostly an excuse for all the attendees to sample some great beer, sing German songs, and stuff their faces with delicious food. I’ve never been able to replicate the feel of her Oktoberfest parties, but I still celebrate it every year because it makes me feel like she’s there with me at the party rather than thousands of miles away. The same holds true when I miss my home country. Usually making something as simple as my mom’s stuffed mushrooms or some sopa negra (black bean soup) is enough to make me feel a bit less homesick.
Before I end, I just want to stress that my intention with this post is not to make you feel bad if you hate cooking, find food boring, or simply don’t have the time to make a lot of home cooked meals. Rather, I’m hoping that by sharing some of the benefits that I get from cooking, I might get you to think a bit more about why you like or don’t like to cook. If I were being particularly ambitious, I would also say that I’m hoping that it might inspire you to give cooking another try or, if you love to cook, to start making things that might a bit out of your comfort zone. I also hope to make the blog a place where people can come to find ideas for home cooked meals and cocktails, read about what makes food so special for me, and share your own thoughts on cooking.