I like cooking. I am a fairly good cook. My friends and family are generally very complimentary about the meals they have shared with me.
It is not, however, the applause nor the mastering of the skills involved in cooking which gives me pleasure: it is the understanding that the love involved in making a meal for friends or family is a gift which is given back a thousand fold.
I love good food and care about how it is produced and where it comes from. If I have grown the food myself, even if the ingredient is a handful of herbs, the whole dish carries more love, it carries more meaning for me and more care for the consumer.
Consumer – the loved one consuming the meal I have prepared.
Consumed – the loved ones being eaten.
The love, and the care extends to all: I choose my vegetables with care, growing what I can and finding or inventing recipes to use a wide range of seasonal herbs, vegetables and fruit. I choose the meat I cook with the utmost care. Animal husbandry and the environment are important considerations in the choices I make. I have chosen to eat meat after careful thought (and after several forays into vegetarianism) and am very aware of how much I use, how many meals contain it and its provenance. I care about the people I cook meals for.
Love is the essential ingredient in cooking: both for the cook and the cooked for. It is hard work preparing meal after meal for family and it is hard work preparing a special meal for friends but the love involved in this daily act of nurturing makes it a gift to the self, as well as to family or friends. It makes the labour a labour of love.
There is something very basic about preparing food for others and for oneself which reaches back through the ages and reconnects us with reality rather than the modern construct we inhabit. We need to eat and if the food we eat is homemade our sense of wellbeing and security is also fed. If we have given time and energy in producing the food, if we have plucked it from the earth, washed it and incorporated it in the dish we serve, the gift we give is magnified. If we have bought the individual ingredients, choosing the best on offer and prepared the meal from scratch, we have earned the appreciation of those we share our meal with and can feel satisfied with what we have done.
Visceral satisfaction is quite rare in many people’s daily lives. Unless one is involved in very practical work or play, it will be something that is seldom experienced. The physical act of cooking is immensely rewarding. Once one has gained some experience, there is a meditative quality to cooking and one can lose oneself in the routine of a regularly prepared meal or anticipate the reception that a popular family dish will elicit.
Cooking and eating are very sensory activities. The smell, look and texture of the food we eat and of course the taste, combine to bring us an experience other than that of merely sustaining ourselves. Washing of vegetables is an extremely tactile and tender act. Cleansing to ensure the health of those who will eat the food we make is an act of basic care. Peeling and chopping and heating have been a part of food preparation since pre-history. That link, back to our past, can be felt in the body and the heart when we make a meal. I believe that the inherent knowledge that food is precious and that it need be respected, is embodied in the act of selecting, cooking it and being mindful whilst eating it. This is felt more strongly as one gives more and more attention and love to the processes involved.
The loss of this connection which fast food and ready meals have brought has led to food being undervalued, factory farmed and homogenised to extremes. Many of us do not want to bear witness to the reality of the suffering of factory farmed animals. Most animals suffer in death and to only consider their end is to close our eyes to the longer term suffering which is for most part, their lives. I do not kid myself that good animal husbandry, free range and organic or small farm produced meat, means that there is no suffering but within my choice to eat meat, I do my best to care for the consumed. Most of us turn a blind eye to the waste involved in the production of fruit and vegetables with barely a blemish or size discrepancy. Do we really care if our apples are all the same size and shape?
When cooking for family and cooking for friends our love and our care extends far beyond the immediate, far out into the world. Loving cooks are true environmentalists, true lovers and true friends… of those who are close to us and of the earth we share with all living things. The things we need to eat!
‘And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching….
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.’
From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran