As sheltering in place continues with only some relief, I found myself feeling a bit worn out by my own home cooking. Look, I love to cook and play with food. I do. I make my living with food; my mission in life is completely driven by food and cooking.
It hit me the other day, as I was making lunch. It wasn’t the work of cooking that was wearing on me; it was the familiarity of the dishes I was making, the predictability of my own cooking habits. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t feeling like I wanted to experiment or cook with an adventurous spirit.
I didn’t browse when I went food shopping. I didn’t look for new products. I quickly moved through the aisles, mask in place, avoiding other shoppers, grabbing what we needed.
Every pair eyes I encountered in the market had the same look of malaise, everyone feeling short on enthusiasm, cooking for survival. As much as we all fell in love with delicious sheet pan dinners and “kitchen sink” stews, I don’t know about you, but I was in dire need of inspiration.
Here I was, a bestselling cookbook author, with recipes and creative cooking baked into my DNA and I was struggling.
It was time to get out of my own way.
We are smack dab in the middle of the greatest season for fresh ingredients. From greens to tomatoes; fruit to root vegetables, cabbage to salad greens. If we have to live through a pandemic, at least we can get the freshest foods at a local farm market or CSA, right?
It’s time to reboot my cooking creativity.
I mean, in the end, why was I so bummed about cooking all the time? It is, in fact, the greatest way to condition our bodies to fight infection and control our overall wellness.
So how do we reboot? How do we self-inspire? I can tell you what I did.
My dad was a butcher. He was an artist as well, but to support his family, he worked as a butcher. My dad was good with his hands as was my Nonno, my Italian mother’s father, who for me, was The Man. To this day, I think of him when I have a tough decision to face. I think of them both as I work and bless them both for the work ethic they instilled in me.
They both held on to a simple philosophy; that good work is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. They both taught me to celebrate responsibility and personal accountability.
I have lived by that philosophy for all of my life, taught to me by these two humble heroes. I think it’s right. Especially when it comes to cooking. The work we do in the kitchen (if you can call it work at all) is meaningful on every level, from the manual skill that it takes to make, say, the perfect bread dough to precise julienne cuts to exact dice. All of these skills are a salute to the meaningful joy of feeding those we love (and ourselves). There’s no debate, no question that this is good and useful work that makes a difference.
And is there any stronger personal accountability than what you choose to cook and eat? Than serving those we love the best food we can?
Just thinking of these two glorious and humble men took me back to the feasts at our table. My Nonna was one of 17 children (yup, 17) so dinners at my house were never simple affairs. It was like cooking a holiday feast daily, from fresh breads and sweets and multi-course meals to keep everyone well-nourished. With little money, my relatives found creative ways to make a little go a long way. And while I am sure they were tired and un-inspired some days, that was never evident in the kitchen, where they sang, talked and laughed as they cooked, teaching me the joy of cooking from a very young age. I loved everything about the kitchen and its resulting feasts.
I needed to look no further than the salt water taffy box that holds my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes (such as they are…no real measurements) to find the inspiration I thought I had lost in these strange and scary times in which we live.
As a lifelong cook, I went back to the cutting board with renewed enthusiasm and found my way back to the joy of cooking and feeding those I love best.
So my advice as we find our way through this pandemic? If you can, cook. Practice the basic skills you need to master to feel at home in the kitchen so that cooking becomes another way to find happiness and peace, instead of white knuckling it through yet another survival meal. Remember that mastering cooking skills will pay dividends for the rest of your life.
If you are already a great “from scratch” cook, then open your mind and heart and try some new things, even if those dishes are with the same ingredients you always have on hand.
Life during this pandemic offers little in the way of pleasures, but you can search out the freshest ingredients; you can open your cookbooks (or salt water taffy box) and cook something traditional and healthy. You can bask in the warm glow of nourishing those you love in the best way you know.
Make a special dessert, even though it’s just another day like all the others. Cook on the grill if you can to create a festive picnic air to your meals. Play music and dance off the calories after dinner, even if it’s right in your living room.
It’s time to suck it up, buttercup and keep cooking as though your life depends on it, because it does. And that is one of life’s greatest joys.