Have you smelled a freshly cut cucumber lately?
The cucumber I cut for my salad this evening smelled (and tasted) more like watermelon (which is in the same plant family) than cucumber. Cucumbers have this subtle refreshing fragrance that I find very enjoyable when I’m preparing my food. If I use purple cabbage on my salad, I like cutting a wedge off the heavy head of the vegetable. Slicing through the wedge with a sharp knife makes a satisfying crunch. I also cut tomatoes with a serrated knife and watch some of the wet seedy flesh seep out onto the cutting board. I wash lettuce—noticing the color gradient, how the outer leaves are dark green and the inner parts near the spine light green—pat it dry, and slice it with a knife or, if I’m lazy, tear it into pieces with my hands. I add boxed spinach and sliced carrots and then I’m done until I put on the dressing (store-bought). The spinach and carrots are the least sensory parts of the experience.
Preparing a salad shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is. It feels like it takes a lot of time. I go through periods not eating salads because I don’t feel like preparing the ingredients. Yet if I were to buy a bagged or pre-prepared salad, I’ve realized, I would get none of the sensory experience of preparing the salad from individual whole ingredients. And I would appreciate much less the individual foods and their unique appearances and properties and tastes.
One of the reasons cooking and preparing my own food is so important to me—and so enjoyable—is that it provides a rich sensory experience that I lack when I buy more processed foods. When I was in medical training, for instance, I barely had time to eat and sleep outside of work. In those years, my lack of time justified, I believed, the purchase of pre-cut fruit such as berries and cantaloupe. I remember paying as much as $6 or $12 for packages of these pre-cut fruits. I found that to be outrageous. But I did it. In those years, I never bought a whole cantaloupe, let it ripen a few days on the counter, waited until it smelled sweet, indicating it was ripe, and then cut it in half and removed the seeds and sliced it. I never got the enjoyment of eating a freshly sliced, juicy piece of cantaloupe. The pre-cut cantaloupe I bought in the stores was usually underripe, hard, and tasteless. It was rare to come across a juicy sweet piece in the package. I must have eaten it out of habit and because I never really noticed the lack of taste. Eating in medical training often involves quickly scarfing down food over some lecture or meeting (maybe you have a similar experience?), which ensures that you don’t really taste or enjoy your food or think too much about it.
The hyper-busyness of those years diminished my life in other ways as well. I became withdrawn socially because I was so unhappy. I’d been writing ever since I was in grade school and had begun to write more consistently in college. But during medical training I hardly ever wrote—and if I did, it was to get down some facts in a journal or mention how lost I felt. I barely had time to exercise. When I went for a walk, I thought about how I felt like I wasn’t really living. And I wasn’t.
Lack of time to cook—or exercise or write in a journal or relax or get a full night’s rest or pursue creative or spiritual pursuits or just enjoy time with others—is a problem for most people. American workers work more hours and take less vacation than people in other countries. The gig economy has made schedules more erratic. Services like Alexa and meal delivery services have become popular. (I’ve recently seen ads on YouTube for Walmart grocery service where the delivery person will even come into your place and put your items away.) What everyone seems to lack is time (and sleep).
Yet government statistics from 2021 reveal that while people who reported watching TV spent over three hours per day on average on this activity, those who reported they did food preparation and cleanup reported one hour per day on average. The average daily hours for the populace as a whole for each activity were, respectively, two and a half hours and just over half an hour. We may not be able to work fewer hours at our jobs, but we can always watch less TV (and do less social media) to free up some time. (To this point, food writer Michael Pollan has noted that Americans love to watch cooking shows but are spending less time cooking than in the past.)
The manufactured time scarcity of modern life is bad for our health, and it diminishes our attentiveness to our own sensory experiences. There are many arguments for working1 less—and for the need to replace a profit-driven economy with a socialist society in which everyone’s basic needs are met—not the least of which is the climate crisis. But it also comes down to being able to enjoy our lives in really simple ways. To really do that, we need to slow down. One activity that absolutely requires slowing down is cooking food from scratch (and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards). Cooking is ultimately about enjoying the fruits of the Earth, nourishing oneself and others, and socializing around a shared meal. And most anything you cook at home will be healthier than food prepared outside the home.
After training, I was fortunate to find a part-time job. I almost always spent parts of days off venting in my journal about some bureaucratic issues or office drama. I also spent much time shopping for groceries and cooking.2 I got really into cooking. I got many cookbooks. I bought food processors and an immersion blender and a stand mixer and new pots and pans along with handy gadgets like an electric can opener (I don’t do manual can openers anymore), a zester, a spider strainer and clip-on thermometer (comes in handy for deep frying things like beignets), and a spice grinder (if you’ve never ground your own spices, you should try it. It is wonderful.), among others.3 I discovered that cooking always lifted my mood. The sights, sounds, smells, and textures of cooking were therapeutic; the transformation of ingredients from raw to cooked involves lots of sensory cues, too (greens wilt down, sauteed garlic smells tamer and takes on a golden hue, and with baking, a bunch of powders and liquids turn into magnificent cakes and cookies). And at the end of it all, I could get nourishment… and leftovers! Plus, cooking is a great way to nourish and take care of others around you. Sharing (and photographing and admiring) a home-cooked meal is immensely satisfying. (Never underestimate, either, the joy you can bring to office coworkers by sharing your own baked goods. Whenever I baked for my coworkers, they rushed to the break room and lit up with a smile as they reached for a cookie.)
Cooking also forces you to learn things about the natural world and about different cultures. For example:
- What’s the difference between chives and green onions, leeks (they smell grassy) and yellow onions (they smell pungent)?
- What about the flavor of shallots versus onions?
- Did you know that vanilla originates in the Americas? Growing up, I always saw items flavored “French vanilla” and thought vanilla might be French. Thus, when I was in Europe about a decade ago, I was, foolishly, surprised to see that the Europeans (at least in parts of Spain and Portugal) did not sell French vanilla yogurt, to my dismay. French vanilla refers to the addition of egg, such as in French vanilla-flavored ice cream.
- It turns out that cilantro is the leaf of a plant whose seeds are called coriander, but this distinction is often confused, something I never knew until I wanted to make a recipe that called for ground coriander, which is not a spice we used when I was growing up. Ground cumin, rather, was the typical spice my family used as the backbone of what’s called Texas Mexican food (as distinct from Tex-Mex, which refers to more mainstream restaurant food).
- Ever notice that supermarkets sell tiny amounts of herbs (rosemary, oregano)? This is something Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi point out in their gorgeous cookbook Jerusalem(I highly recommend this book, but not for beginners). They note that most U.K. supermarkets sell “miserly bags of fresh herbs,” which “no sane cook” in Israel or Palestine would buy because typically they use herbs much more liberally. Cookbook author Samin Nosrat’s recipe for Persian stew (khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi) demonstrates such a liberal use of herbs: the recipe calls for 3 bunches each of cilantro and parsley. (And chives and green onions.) The results are worth the work. Nosrat’s stew is one of my favorite comfort foods.4 It’s not technically difficult to make at all. It just takes several hours of slow cooking, as well as however long it takes you to wash, dry, and process all this produce (for this, a salad spinner and food processor are essential)!
One of my other favorite things to cook is a pot of beans, either pinto beans or black beans. You just put all the ingredients (beans, water, garlic, onion, salt, etc.) in the pot and walk away for a couple of hours. At a certain point, your kitchen will start to smell like whatever profile you have put in the pot. A pot of pinto beans reminds me of growing up and spending time at my grandparents’ house. I got back into cooking beans during the pandemic because it made me feel safe in a very anxiety-provoking time.5 Food is about memory and experience as well as enjoyment.
Cooking can bring us back in touch with the natural world and give us an appreciation for how connected we are to plants of all kinds, to our own past, and to the interconnectedness of all peoples (consider how foods native to the Americas, such as tomatoes and potatoes, were taken back to the Old World and became important to the cuisines there). Cooking is such a fundamental part of human existence that we need to be taught cooking (and gardening) in school. Even though cooking and baking have been made into competitive activities with TV shows, I prefer to reject that aspect of it. There’s no genius required to start cooking or baking. When you are starting out, just follow a good recipe, and you will get a good result.
When things are slow, and I can make my own food, I just feel more at peace. Tonight, for Thanksgiving, I plan to make kale and Swiss chard gratin as a side dish along with a pistachio cardamom bread loaf for dessert.
What do you want to cook?
I would like to acknowledge here that people who cook and care for others in the home are, of course, doing labor. It’s just unpaid labor. ↩
For a while during those years, I volunteered at a kind of spiritual center, the Rothko Chapel, where I was required to sit for long periods of time in silence watching guests to make sure they didn’t disturb Rothko’s paintings. Sitting still in silence in a room full of dark murals was very soothing; anyone looking for a meditative experience in Houston should visit the Chapel. ↩
Like many activities, cooking can get expensive and turn one into a hyper-consumer with all the products available. Garage sales are great places to find often barely-used kitchen gadgets and appliances at low cost. ↩
Nosrat is what I would consider a true generalist. Her recipe for refried beans, as featured in the New York Times, for instance, is also delicious and one of my favorites. Because she focuses on fundamentals, such as in her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, she is able to design recipes that really capture the flavors of whatever culture’s food she’s making. Nosrat also did a Netflix series by the same name. In one episode I particularly liked, she goes to Japan to look at the production of soy and other traditional foods. It turns out that the soy makers in the documentary age their product in barrels for 2 years or more, compared to the quicker 6-month process utilized in commercial production. ↩