The Power of Cooking

Robin - Wellesley, Massachusetts
Entered on February 24, 2008

I believe in the power of cooking. I love to cook. Or maybe, more precisely said, I love to feed others. I don’t just cook for the pleasure of seeing the ingredients come together (although that always fascinates), I cook for a purpose. I cook to nourish and fill those I love – to sustain us, to mend, and to connect us to each other.

I can draw a straight line from my love of cooking to my grandmother, Mary Louisa Williams. My grandmother was a wonderful woman. There is no other word for it. I adored her and, even at the innocent age of 7 or 8, I knew she had tremendous power in our family. In my memory and through family stories, it’s always clear to me that much of her power came from her cooking. Her mind and body were regularly occupied with the business of cooking – planning a meal to come, shopping for it, chopping, prepping, stirring, and washing up afterwards. She was a fabulous cook; one of those cooks who never measures anything or follows a recipe. She cooked by instinct, feeling her way through the ingredients, the timing, and the quantities. She rarely used traditional implements, preferring to use her hands to measure and stir things. While watching her work in her tiny kitchen, it occurred to me that she was leaving a little of herself in every dish she prepared – offering her skin, her tears, her sweat along with her love in each pastry shell and roast. She cooked every single day, sometimes three of four times a day. She devoted particular days of the week to particular cooking plans. Tuesday was the day for baking, Friday was always fish, and Sunday dinner – oh, I can still taste it. Everything that came out of her kitchen was simple, attractive, and unbelievably tasty. I have tried so many times to make her Welsh Cakes, her Maids-of-Honor, or her gravy but they never smell or taste the way they did when my grandmother made them. Sometimes, I’ll get a whiff or flavor shard that is like hers and I’m filled with pleasure, with memory, as if she’s there in the room.

I don’t believe that memories bubble up, like air in water. Instead, they are more like fish, under the surface, and must be teased out to be seen. When I cook, it’s like throwing a baited line into a lake. In goes the smell of nutmeg baking in the oven, and out comes a vivid image of my grandmother, smoothing out dough with her flour-covered hands.

Each time I go into the kitchen, roll up my sleeves, and survey the contents of the pantry I can feel the warm hum of anticipation. From the scattered cans, jars, produce, and spices will come a meal; a balanced, assemblage of tastes and nutrients that will fill the stomachs of the people at our table. We’ll talk, laugh, and pass the potatoes. And in each dish will be a little bit of me, connecting everyone at the table to me and connecting me to my grandmother. This I believe.