I’ve been living here in this new place in a new relationship for 160 days. Yes, I’m counting the days. Aren’t you? During that time, I’ve cooked about 400 meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner. My choice. I want to cook. I need to cook. First because life is too short for bad food. Also, the pandemic is too long for bad food. So, for me every meal has to be delicious, and… I need to be busy. I need a healthy point of focus for my mind, and I love to eat. Cooking keeps my mind from going sour. Food is my art project, my meditation and my mission. It’s the three times a day ritual that brings me into a new moment and holds me there as I assemble, process, eat and clean up after food. All tasks that invite my creativity and mark the passage of time. 160 days. 400 meals. My goal is to eat food that tastes fabulous without gaining weight. That’s the challenge. To find comfort in food without consuming more calories than I burn. Please don’t offer to help me. I need to do this. Alone.
For me cooking is writing turned inside out, an exercise as much internal as external, a routine that keeps me occupied while my mind wanders. The perverse combination of lockdown inertia and volatile current events could render my thoughts a foul stew of anxiety. To cleanse my neurotransmitters, maintain my mental order, and keep from amputating a finger, I focus on my cutting board. Cooking is a lot of cutting. My knife technique is improving. I’m getting good at mincing ginger. It’s the small things, right? Meanwhile my subconscious is free ranging on an invisible treasure hunt for sparkly ideas, the ones that elude me when I’m pushing myself to find them and magically appear when I’m chopping garlic.
I say I cook from scratch, but I cheat. 400 meals. I buy sauces, those cultural concoctions of liquid and spice — Thai, Indian, Italian, Mexican — in a bottle or a jar. If only real life were as simple as a jar of something I could pour over my head and feel brilliant. Cooking is easy. If it tastes good, I’ve succeeded. Not so with writing. Sometimes the words that give me the most satisfaction are the least popular. I deal with it. Every once in a while, I have a thought, say mixing fresh spinach, gorgonzola and bacon over penne, and it is undeniably genius. A great victory. But can I really take credit for bacon? From the perspective of a writer, bacon is plagiarism. Really. I simmer chicken in a tub of salsa especiale and it’s like stealing a paragraph from Gabriel García Márquez.
The thing about cooking that is so helpful to my psyche is letting go of the big picture and zooming in to the task at hand. It’s a change of scenery for my brain, and in that fresh space some of my best ideas sprout. Simple tasks set me free. Cooking centers me. I step off my mental treadmill of imaginary importance to focus on my very real biology, and I’m grounded by the experience of my senses. Looking forward to the next 160 days.