Have you read Garlic and Sapphires yet? It’s a memoir by Ruth Reichl, chronicling her years as the New York Times restaurant critic. Can you imagine such a job? Eating at the finest restaurants in the world for free? Before reading the book, I never thought about the reality of being a food critic. Of course, like anything in life, once something becomes mandatory, it’s never nearly as much fun. I know this from my own experience. When I was working as a journalist, I remember going to events and thinking how, if I was like everyone else there—all the people I interviewed, for instance—I would be enjoying myself. But the knowledge that I had to memorize details, get all the pertinent information, then rush back to the office late at night to type out my story, my heart beating as I raced to meet my deadline, made it an entirely different experience. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the work, but it was work.
Well, apparently even a restaurant critic can tire of her job after awhile. At one point in the book, Reichl talks about having an affair from her work with her kitchen. She starts canceling reservations night after night because she can’t resist stepping into her kitchen, sifting through recipes handwritten on thin, worn cards, and selecting the perfect dish. She talks about heading to the Market, looking through the ingredients for the freshest garlic, the thinnest and snappiest scallions, then heading home to meditate in front of the stove.
This made me realise how easy it is to take what we have for granted. And I don’t mean Reichl. I love to cook, but sometimes I get caught up in the chore aspect of preparing food. Hauling two children through the grocery store, trying to get everyting on my list (impossible) while keeping up a constant stream of “no, we’re not getting that,” “no, not today,” “no, put that back,” as I navigate through the aisles. Or rushing to mix and peel and dice before the oil in the skillet begins to smoke or the sauce begins to burn. Or looking around the house at 4pm, toys scattered on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink, my stomach growling, and dinner not even started yet. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I’ll think occasionally, “to go out to eat tonight?”
But what if I had to go out meal after meal, night after night, and not even because I really wanted to? What if I had to scrutinize each dish, knowing that my job depended on a sound analysis, instead of just enjoying the taste, the atmosphere, the pleasure of knowing there are no dirty dishes awaiting me at the end?
How fortunate I am, to be master of my plate, to have the time and the ingredients to cook each day. I am grateful for the weekly ritual of mixing and kneading bread dough, then reaping the rewards. The warm smell of it baking in my oven is hard to beat. Imagine if my house always smelled sterile, instead of being filled with the smells of toasting nuts, simmering stews, or freshly peeled carrots. I would give up so much if I stopped cooking. I would lose far more than I gained, even if it would be easier in some ways. There would be no excuse to whip up a batch of pumpkin muffins first thing in the morning. There would be no more challenging myself to delve into ingredients and experiment. Of course, there would be no more culinary disasters either, but I think the successes make the failures worth it.
I’m thankful for the gift of cooking, and the little, everyday joys of the kitchen.
Tonight, I’m eating in.