And here is my story …
There is a substantial difference between the daily meal and the festive meal even if the same person cooks these meals. Samuel Johnson made the distinction clear when he said: “This was a good dinner enough, to be sure, but it was not a dinner to ask a man to”.
Festive meals require some formality as guests are carefully considered and attendance is requested by means of a formal invitation. This is not some spontaneous gathering of friends taking potluck.
Festive cooking is, by definition, cooking for celebration. Try as we may, every day is not a day of celebration or a festive occasion.
Celebrations require something special: the conclusion to a harvest, a birthday, a spiritual or religious event, or the return of the (proverbial) prodigal son. Think of it this way: if the prodigal son was to return every day, he would not longer be considered prodigal and his return would no longer be deemed worthy of a celebration. We’d no longer issue invitations, seek out special ingredients or try elaborate recipes. Instead, he’d just be a normal member of the small community that the home cook has to feed every day.
The primary task of the home cook is to prepare and cook meals that will sustain a small community of eaters. The emphasis is on sustenance – to nourish and to comfort those who are dearest to us.
The late Martin Versveld observed that a “good cook, like any other good artist, seeks to please, that is, to make his pigments speak out and reveal what they are”. Sadly, many home cooks today are irreverent to this, and in doing so they have turned the scared inner sanctuary of wellbeing – the home kitchen – into a badly managed feeding lot.
I often get asked, “what makes a great cook?” or “how can I become a better cook?” or the much dreaded “what is good food?”
As if I would have the answer to these questions. As if anyone would have the answer to these questions.
To be honest, these questions are irrelevant if we as cooks do not take our obligation to nourish seriously.
To me, the kitchen is a spiritual place and to nourish is a spiritual exercise. Thus, add something spiritual to your kitchen – a crucifix, a string of Tibetan prayer flags, a statue of the Virgin Mary or St Francis. And put it where you can see it and look at it often so that it can remind you of the importance of what you’re busy with. Touch it if you need comfort, for if your trust the god or deity of your choice with your life, you’d do well to trust him or her with your food too. And trust me, the home cook needs all the help they can get.
The home kitchen is a humble place. And given the not-too-infrequent monetary constraints of the home cook, so will be most of the home cook’s ingredients. The challenge is to make these humble ingredients shine, so have respect for them. Make sure your ingredients are fresh and apply only the right amount of seasoning and heat. Be proud to serve only toast and bone marrow if that is all you can afford. But cook it right and serve it with a happy hart (and a bit of parsley salad from your garden), it is a meal straight from food heaven.
Cook to nourish not to feed. To nourish requires awareness and understanding of your little community. If someone is in emotional distress, cook to comfort him or her. If they are in physical discomfort, cook to heal them. Give everyone enough, but no more. Avoid gluttony and greed, and lift no finger to encourage it.
Waste not. The home cook understands that to waste is to deprive and dispossess. Potato skins need not go to the bin. Deep-fried and dressed with rosemary-salt they bestow the home cook with plenty of praise and respect. And while you are at it, why not add some the rendered fat from your last roast to the dough of your next loaf of bread?
Home cooked meals should be good and interesting with the occasional surprise.
Serve your food on a plate and not in a trough. Cook and serve it fresh. And style it with near perfect modesty.
The ultimate treasure of any home cook is his or her cookbook. Any home cook has one – the one that contains all the family recipes, observations and notes. It is likely to look like a scrapbook, with loose pages and inserts. It would be stretched far beyond its intended capacity and treasured for its memories captured in stains and blots and names of long-gone people next to special recipes. They are, ultimately, journals of enjoyment.
Herein, is recorded the secrets and alchemy of those who nourish and comfort us – the lineage of home cooks that define each family since time immemorial.
All too often the task of cooking is viewed with heavy heart today. After a long day at work everyone is in need of nourishment and comfort, but few are in the mood to prepare and deliver it.
So we resort to the convenient. And we invite those in need of nourishment and comfort to eat from the ready-made trough and just like the owners of feed-lots we stand back and watch them stuff themselves with pre-cooked meals, processed food items, and meals obtained from fast-food franchises.
Those who ask me for my inputs on notions of good cooks and good food are rarely satisfied with my answer that it is located in the inseparable bond between home and cooking. That the divinity of home is intrinsically linked to the divinity of home cooked food. And that home and food require a spiritual connection. And that cooking requires sacrifice.
I think part of their disappointment comes from the expectation that the secrets of good cooking are hidden in some fancy technique or secret ingredient – something out of the ordinary. That it must be something mysterious and difficult to attain and thus, out of reach of us mere mortals.
I guess that we all at some stage or the other have used this technique of reflection as proper justification for our unwillingness to spend at the stove. “I do not cook because I can’t braise, poach or fry”.
Truth is, anyone could learn the basic skills required for cooking properly. That is the easy part. The more difficult part is the spiritual commitment, i.e. the commitment to be the provider of nourishment and comfort – the home cook.
Much like the Monk from the Monastery of Spiritual Light who visited a Zen Master. The Zen Master asked the Monk: “In the day we have sunlight, and at night we have lamplight. What is spiritual light?”
The Monk had no answer.
At which point the Master provided the answer: “sunlight and lamplight”.
What you have is right and what you have is good and sufficient.
A while ago I received a special gift. The kind that inspires the home cook to turn the ordinary into something special. Foie gras – all the way from the Netherlands. Offered in small disks it was just right to elevate a simple home cooked meal to a true festive dish. Take out your best fillet of beef, the prodigal son is home.