cooking, a manifesto

I wanted to write a bit about my cooking but I wasn’t sure how to approach it without sounding arrogant or navelgazing, because the simple truth is:

I am a good cook.

I’ve been told occasionally I’m an “excellent cook”, but I do not claim this label for my own. No – I’m a good cook.

Yes, I realize “good” is subjective. Let me be clear about the type of cook I am not. I am not a home chef who has a bunch of erudite knowledge, or someone who puts together lavish spreads centering around a perfectly-prepared expensive and tender cut of meat. In fact, I can barely cook meat and I certainly don’t know my way around it (my husband’s preferences run to vegetarianism and that suits me just fine). I am terrible at providing cocktails (or even beverages); my guests drink out of bottles or mason jars. I don’t know wines – I mean at all. I am inept at the little fiddlesome details that create perfectly identical enchiladas. I can’t plate nor garnish a meal in a way that takes my guests’ breath away – and I really should learn competency in some of these things, and maybe someday will.

Yet despite my above-listed failings – and likely many more – I know I am a good cook. How do I know this?

Besides the compliments – and I get many – I know I’m a good cook from what I experience while preparing the meal. I enjoy cooking. I am always excited to learn a new dish and I usually succeed in the effort (if my guests’ reactions are to be taken at face value). I love every part of the process, from picturing how the meal will come together, to finding the ingredients in the shop or in my garden, to washing and cutting them, putting on some music, wiping down the table, beginning to bring last night’s soaked beans to a gentle boil, starting my bread by stirring yeast and sugar into warm water to watch and smell it as it proofs (breadmaking is one of the best olfactory experiences I know of). I literally enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating.

I am a good cook because I can be quick, and I can be flexible. I appreciate both the skill that comes with practice and the on-the-fly abilities that create the lunchtime dish for my children. I can take shortcuts with the right storebought pizza sauce or spend days brewing a sourdough starter to serve a friend for their birthday.

And speaking of this, I am a good cook because I can bake bread, and I’m only getting better. Naan so fragrant and belly-filling that a friend who visited over a year ago still rhapsodies about it. Bagels that never deflate, waiting to be stuffed and devoured. A pita recipe that makes its rounds in my social circle, a legend of modest proportions. Tonight, eight loaves of Cuban bread delectably sour, spongey, dense and soft.

I am a good cook because I honestly care what my company, guests, and family enjoy and prefer. I am only too happy to cook for those with allergies or preferences or even someone who says, “Man, I’d love a strawberry rhubarb pie”. Done and done.

I am a good cook because my ego does not suffer if I turn out a failure. Nor do I feel the need to apologize much when this happens. In tonight’s fare (Cuban sandwiches, black bean refritos, aromatic Cuban white bean & butternut squash soup, homemade cheese, cucumber and tomato salad, chips and salsa, crema superior, oven-roasted tomatoes, chocolate fudge pudding with whipped cream, and yellow cake topped with fennel candy) I screwed up – of all things – on the pudding (made from a box no less). Minor embarassment; top with whipped cream, serve, and let’s move on.

I am further blessed in that I am not too likely to stress about preparing or entertaining. Cooking for many – in my small kitchen with my one frying pan! – yes, sometimes I find myself running about the kitchen feeling a bit frantic. When I feel this I can straighten up, pull my hair off my forehead, and say to myself, “Let it go.” I’ve done my best; I’ve prepared as well as I can. Shite, the sandwiches are going to come to the table five minutes later than the rest. Oops! And that’s all.

I am a good cook because I like using quality ingredients – and love the search and culmination of acquiring them – but I also understand I am not entitled to them. I am glad that at no point in my career as cook and hostess has someone labeled me a “foodie”. I abhor food elitism in all forms. I will not feel smug at my friend’s ill-salted green bean casserole or talk smack about the tuna wraps that represent another person’s best efforts. I feel only deep gratitude for food – all food, especially that given from the heart or grown by my neighbor. At home I like to cook well, if I can; in another’s house my eyes fill with tears that she has made this meal just for me – no matter what it tastes like.

I am a good cook because I always want to learn more, and to please my family and friends with my cooking.

I’m not an amazing cook, or a fussy cook, or someone who needs to be praised for my efforts. I will say “You’re welcome” when complimented, but I do not require ass-kissing, because I did it because I enjoy it. I am not a martyered cook, or an egocentric one:

I am a good cook.

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