From the Heart

7th May, 2010: Posted by G.L. Pease in Editorial

Great food, truly soulful food, is important. It doesn’t come from the head. It doesn’t come from technique, or from architectural presentation, or through years of training, or coming up through the brigade. It comes from the heart.

A friend was over for supper one night, and mentioned, somewhat casually, “You’re always so happy when you’re cooking.” He’s not wrong. From the planning, to the shopping, to the preparation, and through the cooking, I’m filled with joy when making food, especially when it’s destined to be shared with those I love. Even at the peak of the orchestrated chaos that arrives in the final stages of getting an elaborate meal to table, when I’m rushing back and forth, playfully barking instructions like a temperamental chef to the informal brigade assembled in the kitchen after being recruited at knife-point to mash, plate, serve, it’s when my spirit is most joyful.

I didn’t come to my love of cooking naturally, and I’ve always been jealous of those who grew up in a family filled with wonderful culinary tradition. They tell stories of heirloom recipes, the way mama or grandpa did it, and the feasts that would arrive along with the company at big holiday get-togethers. When I was ordering from life’s menu, I completely missed that page.

My mother was not a joyful cook, nor a particularly adventurous one. (I still visibly cringe a little when told about recipes employing the infamous red tins of Cream of Mushroom soup.) She often claimed to enjoy cooking, but I think what she really liked was the idea far more than the actual act. Dad? He could pretty much fry an egg into rubbery submission and grill a burger until he was quite sure it was dead. His cooking was at its best when he wasn’t doing it.

But, mom was a good cook, if not a great one. She’d competently follow recipes and produce food that tasted good, but it was rarely without some accompanying anxiety. Holiday meals, especially, were usually tormented affairs, attended by loud bouts of angst and drama, cacophonous pot slamming, stage-whispered sighs, and threats of food being thrown into the sink. As the years passed, especially after my father’s passing, the drama, and my holiday dread increased. “Can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” She didn’t so much teach me how to cook as she taught me how not to.

Despite mom’s influence, I somehow believed, even as a boy, that cooking could be something different. I knew food could be a beautiful, wonder-filled adventure. I was a rebel; the first in my family to use chopsticks; the first to eat raw fish and escargots; the first to experience the thrills of pungent curries and delicate sweetbreads. When asked what I wanted for dinner on my tenth birthday, it wasn’t pizza and cake and ice cream; I wanted a big bowl of steamed mussels and crusty bread at Fisherman’s Wharf. “Shall I bring a half order?” the waiter asked my dad. No. The whole banana.

As kids do, I was staging my revolt. And, I’m still doing it.

While my friends were watching cartoons, I’d more likely be entertained by Graham Kerr’s antics on The Galloping Gourmet, amused by his stories and the gradual and inevitable tipsiness that accompanied his frequent “tipple” of the wine he was cooking with. And, I’d watch with delight as the great Julia Child, with her quirky mannerisms and enthusiastic, if sometimes messy approach to preparation, would assemble beautiful and delicious looking meals and wish her audience a heartfelt Bon Appetit. I knew she really meant it.

When I got out on my own, hosting dinner parties, hoping to create some of the traditions that I’d missed out on, I began to delve into the deeper mysteries of the kitchen. I bought good cookware and good knives. I consumed cookbooks and food magazines. I watched Burt Wolf and Jacques Pepin. I made up recipes, quite a few of which were less than successful, but I never forgot Julia’s admonition; when you make something, and it doesn’t come out quite right, call it something else, and serve it with pride.

Most importantly, I cooked, and I loved it.

When I travel, it’s always through eating with the locals that I connect most deeply to their culture. The sharing of food is intimate. It’s art that we can literally devour; an expression of the land, the weather, the people, their histories and traditions, and their daily lives. And, it’s always seemed to me that conversations at table are usually the best ones, the richest and most memorable ones. That’s what I want at my table. It’s a beautiful thing!

We lose a lot when we’re constantly rushing, when we are so busy that we don’t pay attention to what we’re cooking, what we’re eating, and who we’re eating it with. We forget important things like our connection to nature, to our culture, to each other. Today’s world of sound-bites, of cellular phones, text-messaging, and on-line “social networking” is increasing our illusory connectedness to an unreal, virtual world, at the expense of the real one – the one where people touch one another, and look into each other’s eyes, and listen to each other’s voices with their hearts.

We’re in too much of a hurry. We’re too busy. Our society’s dependence on fast food is just one manifestation of this, and is as damaging to our souls as it is to our bodies. The current trendiness of Slow Food is heartening, but does it go far enough? Does it reach deeply enough into all of our daily lives to save us? Does it “bring it home?”

We need to slow down and reconnect with each other in more meaningful ways, and I truly believe we can do some of that through cooking and sharing food. Get back into the kitchen! (Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already there, so, take the next step; spread the love. Do it now, today, or tomorrow, or next week, but do it!)

Even if it’s only once a week, we all need to cook together, to sit down together, to share the beauty and bounty of the world around us. We need to share ourselves and our food with each other in a way that creates new memories and new traditions.

It doesn’t have to be time consuming, complicated, fancy or laborious. It can be as simple as some beautiful beans and rice, or a really great hamburger, lovingly grilled, or a salad of fresh greens with a home-made dressing and a tasty soup.

Just make sure it comes from the heart.

Bon Appetit!

5 Responses

  1. ashton Says:

    this article is absolutely great!
    thanks for writing it daddy.


  2. Ken Hamik Says:

    I’d forgotten Graham Kerr — watched him a lot. And Julia Child. And Justin Wilson, the idiosyncratic Cajun Chef.

    Wonderful piece, Greg. I would add another phenomena that happens to me when I’m in full cooking mode for my family or guests: I don’t eat as much.

    After planning, shopping, prepping, multitasking and final presentation, I just sit down and really have more enjoyment watching everyone else. I am in more of a tasting than eating mode.

    Do you find that to be true for you?

    P.S. I love Ash’s note. He adores you, you know.

  3. Jon Burton Says:

    If the world read this article, and took ownership of its gentle and essential imperatives, it would be as a balm to our fractured and splintered world. I believe that you have seen a true void in modern life, and are correct when you propose that whole lives, and relationships would improve if we all just used our kitchens and our dining rooms. If we just put in the time there, and lived our lives, in a short while, we’d all be closer, better, and happier people.

    It’s a great article. It’s a great concept. I’ve seen its truth in my own house. Cooking together, and watching our family eat together has brought true, genuine joy to our hearts. Not momentary titillation, but fulfillment and satisfaction. Also, we used to think that the other had to leave so that we could concentrate, and cook, but now planning meals, and shopping for them, and looking at new recipes together is when we have some of our closest time.

    It seems like that is where life is really lived. All the other stuff you do, just so that you can make it happen.

    Thanks for this. Thanks for putting this “out there”. I hope to help to spread it. And I hope to live it.



  4. Daniel Says:

    Ken…too true that we get our kicks out of the preparation and the tasting, and we eat less. During my culinary career we never had time to sit down and eat, so we’d graze…eating a tiny bit about ten or twelve times a day. Watching others enjoy is where the joy is…along with playing with our food

    Greg (as always) punches out another great piece.


  5. Ken Hamik Says:

    Daniel, great words. I think we could solve the racial, political and economic problems of our times by sitting down to a thoughtful, wonderful meal. There is a lot to be negative about in these times. But we are on the precipice of an amazing future. Food (and water) are front and center.