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A New View from the Kitchen

They're coming. The Thanksgiving guests. Lovely people, easy to please people, always grateful people, my husband's nieces have been here many times before and so the grace of their impending arrival stands in stark contrast to any mood of nervousness I may develop out of habit. My husband is an excellent cook and will be in the kitchen. My youngest daughter, another who is at ease among pots and pans, will be here helping as well. It's not all on me, cooking in my kitchen is a community effort, so I am amused to notice some of the old angst creeping in. I'm doing better these days than I used to, mind you. I don't know why cooking has always thrown me into such a tizzy, such an overwhelmed state of hyper vigilance and worry that things will go wrong. But things very often do go wrong. Potatoes can get lumpy. Gravy, despite frenzied whipping, can suffer the same fate. Crusts can turn out less than flaky. Things can burn, overcook, get too hard, too soft, too not perfect. I am not, to say the least, a natural born cook. I am, however, a natural born cookbook collector. They are everywhere in my kitchen, standing in neat rows, stacked beneath the recipe box, on the shelf of the bakers rack. I love to browse the recipes, looking at the glossy pictures of food in other people's kitchens, kitchens where, in my mind, nothing ever goes wrong and the guests are happy and fulfilled and full of gushing accolades for the cook. "I swear, I have never tasted anything so delicious in my whole life!"

Of late my views on cooking, as well as those on other seemingly thankless household chores, have been forever changed by reading a little gem of a book -- Karen Maezen Miller's Hand Wash Cold. Her words inspire a fresh look at daily life and an appreciation of what has been carelessly discounted as mundane and unimportant:

"Kitchen wisdom is the ageless and largely unappreciated teaching of monks and grandmothers. Eating is our sole essential consumption, and cooking is our one common charity, so you'd think the value would be obvious. Yet, like many, I gave cooking short shrift for the longest time. With a critical eye to the value of time and what I judged to be my higher talents, I didn't think meal preparation was worth it. Or rather, I thought I was worth more... I cooked but one Thanksgiving dinner before I turned forty and I'll be the first to admit the wait wasn't entirely worth it."

"The most troublesome things we accumulate are the ideas of what will make us happy and fulfilled. They always leave us hungry for more...Oh how we know it, and yet, can we free ourselves for even one day from our appetite for more? We can if we study the culinary secrets of monks and grandmothers. Not many of us do, and so we miss--or arrive tragically late at-- the one meal our life is serving us."

 That perfect meal born of cookbook fantasy is always out in the future somewhere, feeding perfect phantom people who always arrive on time, in good moods, smiles in place and troubles tucked nicely out of sight. But life gives us people who are hungry right now. Old people and young people, happy people, sad people, nervous people, calm people, people preoccupied with troublesome thoughts who sit at the table but are not really there despite our best efforts to engage them. We all do our best to feed the people in our lives. The food is good, the food is bad, the food is beside the point. We do our best to nourish each other, to be with each other, just as we are, to savor this moment in life we are given, just as it is. The rewards are right here and right now and they have never been anywhere else.

And so, I tell myself, plan the meal and set the table. Chop the vegetables and stir the cranberry sauce. Baste the turkey and roll out the pie crust. Clear the table and wash the dishes. One by one by one, each task on the Thanksgiving checklist will be done with as much skill as I can muster. I plan to give thanks, see what is in front of me, enjoy and love the people around me and then give thanks again. This particular Thanksgiving Day will not come again. It is a treasure in my storehouse of days, the exact inventory of which I do not know, and the lumpy potatoes will not be what I remember most.

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Reader Comments (1)

What a beautiful and timely reminder to me to Just Cook. And then, Just Eat.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Maezen Miller

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