The Hows and Whys of Cooking

If you didn't notice, I redecorated. ;) Changed some things, and hopefully made things a little more readable, for when I decide to post long things. Like today.  Today I'm writing a post about a new-found love, cooking... and some people and things that inspired me to get going. I'm also giving away a copy of the book that changed the game for me, if you can make it to the end of this post.

Part of growing up, at some point, means learning how to cook.

I think one can learn how to cook in a variety of ways. I've learned different things about cooking from my mom, my dad, my grandmother, my friends, and from watching Food Network, reading recipes and failing a lot in the kitchen.

But I think there's a difference between learning how to cook, and learning why to cook. You see, I've known basic things about how to cook for years. But I don't think I ever really learned why to cook until the last few years. And how did I learn why to cook? I think I learned from three people. Two I know, and one I don't. I learned, and experienced, why to cook, from my friend and roommate Becca Hill and my North Carolina mom, Mrs. Metty. And I learned, through reading and hearing stories from Shauna Niequist, on her blog and in her books Bittersweet and Bread & Wine.


Photo Credit - American Casalinga

I am fortunate to have grown up in a home where I ate dinner with my family almost every night. Some nights that meant chicken strips picked up from Chick Fil A, and dropped onto homemade caesar salad. But most nights, it meant my mom or my dad cooked dinner -- veal marsala, lemon pepper chicken, spaghetti with meat sauce were all staples growing up. Summer months meant lots of grilling -- burgers, ribs, fresh-caught tuna. But in all of this, as much as I appreciated the food, I didn't learn the cooking. I learned basic things, but I didn't grow up standing next to my mom or dad, helping to chop veggies or deglaze a pan. I was content with just washing the dishes and setting the table. I ate dinner because I needed to, and because I liked food. I didn't bother to try to learn how or understand why.

Then, I went to college, and like many people, went through the typical phases: loving the dining hall, hating the dining hall, feeling ambivalent about the dining hall, then moving off campus and having to buy groceries and, by the fourth time eating pasta in as many days, wishing I was back in the dining hall. I ate because I needed to. But I ate too, because eating was something you did with people. You met people at the dining hall, and ate. You met people out at Peppers Pizza, or at Weaver Street, and ate. You occasionally had people over, or you just cooked things with your roommates. I learned that food was social, and that eating was meant to be communal. But I still hadn't really learned anything about cooking.

Then, my senior year of college, I lived with my friend Becca. As I've mentioned before in previous posts, that year was a tough one for me. It was a year I battled depression on and off, and for me, that meant the last thing I wanted to do was cook. I didn't really know how to cook many things well. Becca very conveniently loved cooking and found it to be stress-relieving, and so we quickly figured out that I could, once again, be counted on to wash dishes and clean up.

I didn't volunteer to cook very often because I was really insecure. I didn't know how. Becca was a natural cook -- didn't follow recipes. She knew the ins and outs of the kitchen, and although she always made a mess, she made it up as she went along. She, of course, learned through trying and failing, over and over again, but now had a (certain measure of) grace in the kitchen that I thought was either bestowed upon you or not. So, I didn't learn any more how to cook. But I started to see and experience why to cook.

Becca told me she cooked because it was stress-relieving. To come home from a day of work, and to chop, to sauté onions and garlic, and to have that smell running through your house… that's why you cook. You cook because homemade food, shared with someone across the table, generally leads to great conversation. You cook because you don't always have to go out to eat. You cook because there is a pride that comes with the first bite and the perfect last bite… an exclamation and declaration of "hell yea I just made that and it's good." You cook because cooking is creating -- and there is a satisfaction of making something that has no pressure or performance attached to it. This is about nurturing yourself and the people you love.

I also learned from Becca that food, and cooking, was immensely social. She was gracious in respecting my introverted-ness, and didn't have tons of people over all the time for large dinner parties. But, she did invite people over, cook them dinner, spend time with them, opening her home and opening her heart to them in the process. She taught me and showed me that even though it can be terribly messy, great things can come out of the kitchen.

I also learned a great deal about why to cook from Kellee Metty. Kellee is the mom of a dear friend of mine from college, Abby. Because they lived so close when I was in college, I spent a fair number of evenings and Sunday afternoons over their being fed. After I moved out of Becca's house, I actually lived with the Mettys for a year. But that's not when Mrs. Metty demonstrated to me the whys of cooking.

About a year after I graduated, Mrs. Metty started hosting cooking nights. She invited women over to come learn a recipe, cook it, and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. Being as this was still a difficult season for me, most nights I found ways to contribute other than actually cooking. But I learned recipes, like a delicious asian pasta salad, and homemade pasta and meatballs. But once again, it wasn't the actual how to cook that mattered, that changed me. Mrs. Metty demonstrated to me that when you have a home and a kitchen, there is something beautiful about filling it with people. Even when dinner doesn't get eaten some nights until 8:30, it's worth it. The conversations that can happen around the table when you bring together people who are similar in some ways and yet different in just as many are one of a kind. And leaving the dishes in the sink until the next morning is totally acceptable.


Photo Credit - American Casalinga

She is the most hospitable person I know, and I've watched as over the last several years, she has sought to pass along that gift. Not necessarily of entertaining. But of being hospitable. Of opening a home to people you do and do not know. Of cooking things that feed the body and soul. Of creating a place where people feel welcome, and don't need to ring the doorbell and wait to come in.

These two have fed me countless meals, and opened their homes and hearts to me in ways for which I will be forever grateful.

Next to them though, the person who has taught me the most about why to cook is Shauna Niequist. I don't know Shauna, but I imagine that if we lived closer, we might be friends. But regardless of how the internet tricks you into thinking you could be friends with people, Shauna, through her books Bittersweet and Bread & Wine has showed me more of why to cook.

I was probably intimidated by Shauna in Bittersweet. She talked about this fabulous food and meals shared, and in my mind she was a perfect chef in the kitchen. Like I thought with Becca, you either have the grace to cook and entertain, or you don't. I could chalk it up to the fact that they're extroverts, whatever… They knew what they were doing, and I didn't.

So then I picked up Bread & Wine, and something shifted. From the get-go, Shauna is vulnerable in sharing her own history and relationship with food. And then she moves quickly into urging you to start where you are, that it's not about recipes or getting it right or looking good. It's about having people over, making basic food for the people you love. And she talks and writes about learning things and trying recipes, messing up, and adding a little too much tequila to a pie. I was hooked. And when the recipe at the end of that chapter, "Start Where You Are," was about a basic vinaigrette, something my Granny had taught me years ago, I knew… I can do this. I'm already a step ahead.


And so for me, like Shauna says, I started cooking the way I start everything: by reading.

"Almost everything I know in the world, I learned from novels and memoirs and stories… I've read about how to make the perfect Old Fashioned, how to tend a rose garden, how to butterfly a pork loin. But then you find yourself standing at a bar or kneeling in the dirt or holding a very sharp chef's knife and you realize all at once that it doesn't matter what you've read or seen or think you know. You learn it, really learn it, with your hands. With your fingers and your knife, your nose and your ears, your tongue and your muscle memory, learning as you go." (Bread & Wine)

And with that, I devoured the rest of the book. I read it, chapter after chapter, and then tried so many of the recipes. I made more risotto than one person could ever eat. I made sweet potato fries and big salad after big salad. I had to forgo the delicious sounding enchiladas because of my ongoing battle with dairy. And I invited dear friends over and made mango chicken curry. I made sure to remember this wasn't about looking good, and that it was ok to accept help from my friends, in bringing dishes and drinks, and in helping chop things in the kitchen. I read this book, and felt courage -- to pick up a knife and cutting board, and just start where I was. 

I don't always cook amazing things. I've failed several times. I've cut myself on a knife, and spilled more things on the floor than I care to admit. But I am learning to veer away from recipes, trust myself in the kitchen, and believe that if I screw up a dish, no one knows it but me. And even if I happen to screw up a dish when people are over, they're people I love. They don't care. This isn't about impressing anyone, becoming more domestic, having a perfect home and perfect persona… this is about people, and feeding yourself and them. It's about creating a space in your home where good conversations happen. It's about nurturing your body, giving it the food that it needs to function and thrive. Cooking is about community, and cooking is about creating.

I have found so much life in both of these things. Cooking has become an outlet for me creatively, where I am now not afraid to try new things and stretch myself. And cooking has become an avenue for me to overcome my isolating tendencies. There is something in me now that has been switched on, and I enjoy making food and bringing people into my home to share it with me. The subtitle of Bread & Wine is a "love letter to life around the table." I think I've found that love these three women have talked about.

Thanks Becca, Mrs. Metty, and Shauna. You guys should be friends. ;)


Because I loved Bread & Wine so much, I'm giving away a copy! Tell me in the comments below who or what has taught you the most about cooking, and I'll pick a reader from the comments on Friday.