The Kitchen's Always Open
Rank #383 of 1949
About my essay:
Cooking well can be more about acceptance than about control. When you allow the moment determine the meal, you leave the door open for creativity, pleasant surprises, and ultimately, grace.
Only salesmen and strangers ring the doorbell at my parents’ house. Everyone else knows to come around back to the kitchen door: It’s never locked; no knock required. Growing up, our friends were welcome even if we weren’t there to greet them, and my mom often discovered someone else's hungry kid camped out in her kitchen. My mom has an effortless ability to make people feel welcome, and it’s never more apparent than when she’s cooking. She’s skilled in the kitchen, but her real talent—the one I have been struggling my entire adult life to master—is her uncanny knack of knowing just what to make. It’s like choosing a gift, choosing a meal. The ideal selection offers something the recipient couldn’t or wouldn’t do for themselves: a little hand-picked luxury. But, whatever is being served must fit the occasion. A weeknight with a houseful of other people’s teenagers asks for something entirely different than a special celebration with old friends. The true skill lies in knowing what can be offered graciously. Despite decades of watching this come naturally to my mom, in my own kitchen I still had to learn it for myself. Weekends were devoted to attempting expensive, time-consuming dishes. A ordinary Sunday supper for me and my husband wouldn't be mere roasted chicken and a leafy salad. Seared duck breast in cherry-syrah sauce with creamy polenta was more likely. I was smug about my cooking, until my mother-in-law joined us for dinner one night. I made a typically extravagant meal (game hen, braised fennel, lavender creme brulee). The food was lovely and she was appreciative, but she frankly wasn’t enjoying it. She hadn’t come to our house for a foodie experience, just a comfortable evening with family. Instead of offering the simple joy of a shared meal, I had put her on the spot and made her self-conscious. At its best, the act of cooking honors everything that good food means: tradition, self-sufficiency, hospitality, a reason to gather and a way of nourishing ourselves and our loved ones in every way that matters. Talent in the kitchen isn’t about showy techniques or rare ingredients. It’s about employing basic skills and the resources at hand, and using creativity and consideration to create a meal that meets the needs of a particular moment—even if it’s not the most impressive dish in your repertoire. Eating, especially as a guest, may be about submission, but cooking can’t always be about control. Often, the secret to a great meal is simply being aware of what is asked of you, and having the generosity—and humility—to give it. Cooking well means submitting to the moment and meeting its challenges with resourcefulness and grace. It means, as my mother has always known, leaving the door open, and being ready to welcome whatever wanders in.