The other day one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman, began musing on Twitter about why he cooks. He then wrote a blog post about it and encouraged others to follow suit. Here are my thoughts.
Cooking is a magical window onto other cultures. In particular, for me it is a window onto the past. As L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Cooking is a way of traveling through time and space without leaving the confines of my kitchen.
I remember a foggy morning in France, when a friend and I were standing, tickets in hand, waiting for the gates of a chateau to open. There was a vendor selling fresh, hot croissants so we bought some and had just started eating them when the guard came along with his big set of jangly keys. As he collected our tickets and waved us through into the gardens, he didn’t say bonjour or merci, instead he said, “bon appetit!” It was at that instant I truly understood the place of food in the French heart. I haven’t made croissants myself (yet!), but when I do, I’ll be brought right back to that moment.
Cooking is a time machine. Cooking and eating historic dishes is way to get inside the heads of people who lived well before I was born. What better way to imagine what it was like living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century than by cooking up a pot of Baked Beans? Until I researched and cooked that recipe, I didn’t know the dish was crafted so a Puritan housewife could put it in the ashes of the fire on Saturday night, eliminating the need for cooking on the Sabbath. That’s one of the reasons the recipe contains molasses, it’s an acid which prevents the beans from becoming mushy over the course of their long slow bake.
In October, 2009 a friend generously gave me some some pig offal left over from her meat CSA. I went straight to Madeleine Kamman and her recipe for Grosse Cochonnailles or Coarse Country Pâté. Before World War II, at that same exact time of year, French villagers in Brittany would slaughter their pigs and make a myriad of dishes using every bit. I didn’t have a whole pig but, I got a chance to peep into that world by making the pâté and cooking Fergus Henderson’s Pot-Roast Half Pig’s Head.
Until those geniuses at MIT and Stanford figure out how to make a real time machine, I’ll be here cooking my way through history. I read recently, that we have some 4,000 year old cuneiform tablets with recipes on them from Mesopotamia, how cool is that? Ancient land of Ur, here I come.