Fresh Food

I was trying to explain a creeping thought I’ve been recently turning over in my head about cooking and food to the sleepy boy at 3 am last night. I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. It goes something like this: In the past few months I’ve been cooking, a lot. In the years previous I used to be the one that all my friends made fun of because I only ate out. And if I ever cooked it was only out of brief and acute bouts of agoraphobia, usually involving soup from a can or a sandwich. Those were the days when I could, one, afford to eat out every meal, and two, when I cared very little about what I was putting into my body. If dinner had to be a hot dog on the street followed by many beers plus many more cigarettes topped off by a slice before bed, so be it. Conversely there were also many nights of tuna steak seared just right accompanied by tangy assortments of vegetables seasoned Asian style. If I was eating crap 3 nights a week, I was a gourmet the other four. And in New York City although eating gourmet requires some money, it takes little or no effort. As an old boss would say, you can’t swing a dead cat in this city without hitting a fusion restaurant.

But in the months since I returned from Paris, food and eating have taken on a much different role in my life. There’s more than one reason for this change. The most obvious is that instead of biweekly paychecks, these days I’m living off sporadic checks from freelance work, New York State unemployment and my savings. That’s the kind of thing that sends a girl to the supermarket while flipping through the “Specials” newsletter. I used to think that half of my cooking problem was that I couldn’t handle grocery shopping. I was not equipped to choose between the two dozen varieties of pasta sauce, not to mention picking out four or five tomatoes from the bin of hundreds. Often I spent 45 minutes at the supermarket paralyzed by all the choices, emerging with two cans of tuna, a loaf of wheat bread, and way too much irritation. Even picking the type of tuna (premium? white? albacore? in oil? vegetable or saffron?) was an ordeal. It never seemed worth it when I was at work until 7 pm every night. And then after all that I’d actually have to make it? You must be kidding. But now my lack of steady work has the flip side of plenty of time. I’m no longer stressed out by the supermarket. If I have to spend an hour and half scouring ingredients labels, and another 20 minutes in line, that’s just that many fewer hours left to dissect where in the hell my sorry life is heading.

And then as cliche as it is, I learned how to really eat in France. It was a welcome discovery that quality produce needs hardly any preparation to taste good. I could make lots of good food at home without so much as a pot. In Parisian supermarkets there seemed to be far fewer inane choices too. Only three types of pasta sauce, but all of them were yummy. And so I also started to lose my fear of grocery shopping. (My fear of lines, however, was multiplied many times over.) So when I moved back to New York I no longer went straight for the Campbell’s soup and pasta aisle. I picked out vegetables and raw ingredients, and am a devotee of epicurious.com where My Recipe Box now requires lots of scrolling. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve been cooking, only like four or five months, but I have a little herb garden in my kitchen, and it was a big step the other night when I wanted to make a barbecue sauce. I didn’t want to buy the bottled variety with it’s 5 types of refined sugar and strange acidic compounds. So I figured I knew the basic ingredients and could improvise by trusting my taste buds along the way. It worked. It was certainly not the best barbecue sauce I’d ever had, and to be honest even the Heinz was probably tastier, but it wasn’t bad. And I know added the molasses way too early, so it burnt, and I was missing cayenne pepper. The next one will be better.

I like cooking now. I like the actual peeling and seasoning and chopping, and basically all those physical parts of the process. I like making things that require precise timing, where the garlic should be ready when the olive oil is just so hot, and the eggplant should have been salted for 20 minutes before it gets added to the simmering tomato sauce. I like all that, where it all feels almost like a dance. But here’s the creeping thought. I’m already getting kind of bored with it. Like I finally learned how to turn an omelette correctly and I’m sick to death of eating omelettes now. The eggplant dish that I’ve finally perfected is fun when I’m peeking under the lid, but a yawn when it’s staring up at me from the bowl. It’s making me think of the endless amounts of food we eat in one piddling lifetime. Three meals a day for 60 or 70 years – ugh. It’s almost nauseating. Does that make sense? I couldn’t make it make sense last night. How many different spices and recipes and fusion cuisines are there out there to master, and then tire of? Are there really enough for a lifetime? And if you’re gonna get bored with orange poached salmon, why not just stick with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom? So there’s my existential cooking crisis for you. How does it stay fresh? Maybe I need to write a letter to Nigella Lawson.

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