November 09, 2006

My cutlery drawer

Shrink-wrapped Buddhas in Bangkok

If you saw my cutlery drawer, you’d be sure I don’t even know how to spell intuition, let alone live it.

One person has kindly called it Zen, others openly call it tight assed. And they’re both right. My forks and spoons lie on their sides, in perfect precision waiting for their marching orders.

I prefer Zen though.

There is peace in that ordered drawer – it’s pleasing to the eye, well, my eye. And thus pleasing to my soul.

I apologize to no one.

My kitchen tool drawer is another story. Not so Zen…more Zennish, pseudo-Zen, faux Zen, pretenZen.

The knives rest gently on a rack at the back of the drawer, to protect their edges. The rest of the tools are just thrown in at the front with almost abandon.

Their handles all face left – as Steve and I are southpaws.

Is there such a thing as Zen-assed?

What I’m trying to get at is intuition – letting go – and pursuing cooking from the gut…leading to an incredibly satisfied literal gut. Our kitchen is a place of Zen – relaxation, a place for the senses, a place of enjoyment.

(Except when cooking a roast dinner, when it looks more like an Olympic sport of timing – and things get very, very steroidal especially between me and the gravy).

But otherwise, there’s a clear moment in my day when I put the laptop down, I get up and go into the kitchen. I turn on the lights over the counter, pull out my large cutting board, dig around for my favourite chef’s knife (a 6-inch chef’s knife from Sainsbury’s in England that I bought for 9.99 (sterling) and couldn’t live without) – and prep an onion. Slicing an onion is the start of something glorious…and that is definitely Zen.

It’s not like a lot of family kitchens – they often remind me of drive thru’s or warzones, littered with facts of life as people fly past looking for the next energy hit – a fuel pump for life. Snacks as shrapnel.

Cooking just doesn’t matter there…it’s not loved there…food surrenders there – becomes complacent – empty.

The Mums in my life ran family kitchens – feeding their children and their husbands with a mixture of love and duty. Most of them also worked. And now that they’re almost all divorced/widowed/single/and seniors, they take it easy in the kitchen.

And having cooked through the 60s and 70s when processed food was Better! Cheaper! Faster! And maybe even healthier (we’ll test it later!), they now look at me as if I’ve got three heads when I make stuff from scratch.

But then they’ll take something in hand and make it for me…and their intuition kicks into gear. None is trained as a cook, nobody has chef’s blood – but their food is wonderful. There is something indefinable that they put in the pot that works.

The closest I’ve come to understanding it is – they’re relaxed. They hate fuss. They just get it done.

Their tongues and noses working full time – tasting and sniffing for weakness, poverty in something – a little more salt, or sugar or wine. Gravy always behaves. Breads always rise. Pastry wouldn't dare crack - and if it does who cares...we'll patch it later.

My Mum and Auntie Joan who love to cook for dinner parties when they’re together are often missing half the ingredients they need. They make up the rest with a lot of, “oh that’ll do.” “I don’t think curry in this…how about mustard?” Or “we don’t have any shrimp, do you think sausage would be alright?”

And when they sit down to first try their own creation, they apologize in advance for the fact that it’s now a non-shrimp-sausage-non-curry-mustard-sauce-on-pasta-because-they’re-not-fond-of-rice dish.

And it’s delicious.

With none of my precious fretting, research, determined technique, clawing for perfection.

In a word, they drive me crazy.

I admit that’s not very Zen.

It reminds me of my friend Carol who stresses herself over cooking for others. She organizes for a living – entire television crews, in studio and out. She’s a perfectionist (like the rest of us, a group of perfectionists in denial - we can't be, we've never done anything perfectly).

Every year a bunch of us trek to a friend’s cottage in beautiful northern Ontario. Different teams cook different meals. Carol and I have been on the Saturday night dinner challenge for a few years now. This year I couldn’t make it. But we had already planned on making the tagine I wrote about a few weeks ago. Carol was left holding the grocery bags.

She had it all orchestrated the week before. The onions sliced, the spices measured and packed, the meat chopped, everything organized within an inch of its life. It scared me. I gave her some containers of chicken stock I’d made so that part of me would be in the dinner, and as I gave it to her, I made her look me in the eyes and I said, “Cook with love, not with stress. Relax.”

It apparently was a hit. So I guess/hope she took it in.

I read about food/cook it/eat it/breathe and sleep it…but I think I must dedicate a few more years to reach the actual state of Zen that relaxes me into intuitive cooking.

I’ve started. My rules are simple. Simply the best ingredients we can afford (our meat is organic and we eat less of it to make it possible), no processed foods – although we crumble in the face of some chips, and fresh vegetables (nary a can to be seen here other than tomatoes).

I don’t often cook from a recipe. I’m trying new things.

And now when I think about dinner I start thinking in terms of balance, whether juxtaposition or harmony. I love tempting balance when I cook. It makes me happy.

My Mum, Auntie Joan and my Mum’s friend Enid (another wonderful, intuitive cook) wouldn’t use the word Zen probably ever – especially over dinner. But they get it. No fuss Zen. Think I’ll go mess up my forks for fun.

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