Cooking Well Means Cooking from the Heart
Rank #35 of 1949
About my essay:
My grandfather, an improbable gourmet, cooked well because he cooked from the heart. He passed this skill along to me, so that I could cook well for my own daughter.
I ask a dozen of my friends the question “What does it mean to cook well?” In response, I get just as many answers. Among them, “learning proper technique,” “understanding flavor,” and perhaps my favorite, “knowing your food.” (Have you tried to commune with a pork chop? The Barbers at Blue Hill may be able to do it, but in my experience it is a one-sided effort.) All of these answers are true in degrees, but the one that speaks most strongly to me is the one I learned decades ago: cooking well means cooking from the heart. My grandfather, like many in his generation, was drafted to the Army, and given the choice between two positions. He chose “cook” over “bombardier.” The US Government taught him the skill. My mother jokes that in grade school, during show and tell, other classmates would bring in Japanese flags and German helmets, amazing artifacts from across the sea. Her face would burn knowing the only souvenir my grandfather could share was his spatula. But that spatula in Nick’s hand is one of my first, most vivid memories. I’d climb the fifty steps to his place and even before I'd reached the top, I’d smell it. Familiar, enveloping, unlike anything else—the smell of his cooking. It made my whole brain hum with contentment. It said, “Sit. Relax. You’re home.” I’d rest at his table and see him recreating his own mother’s meals--eggplant pressed under heavy pots, bacala soaking in water. . . but his greatest effort was saved for the tomatoes. Every August, he’d select the best from the market, cook and process them through the hand-cranked food mill that now resides in my cupboard. Without air conditioning, he’d nearly dehydrate from the heat, but surrender was no option until every last Ball jar was full, a leaf of basil lain gently over the top. Months later, he’d use those jars in his sauce, which I would unfailingly request for my birthday. I can still taste it, the sauce, and recently I came across another so similar, its aroma alone nearly brought me to tears. Eating it, all I could think of was Nick and the time we spent together-- and the safety I felt with him, and the love. Why? Because his food was a gift he gave. He made it from the heart. My grandfather, he cooked well. I make Nick’s sauce for my own little girl. When she enjoys it, I understand every bit of Nick’s effort. I’m not just feeding my daughter, I’m sparking synapses, creating memories and connections that will last long after my own spatula and I are gone. Cooking well means building an edible history, a communion across generations that my girl, too, will pass on, allowing just a bit of me, and my grandfather, into the future.