Cooking, especially cooking for others, fills me with a sense of contentment I never found in cognac, cannabis, or couch dances.
Writing about cooking, it seems to me, oozes pretension because mixing literary production and food culture so often seems to require further privileging bourgeois modes of living. Without launching into some kind of Marxist polemic, I want to say that writing and cooking, for me, is a peasant activity. What I mean by that, simply, is that telling stories and singing songs or preparing and eating “good” food, are activities of self-expression and self-identification.
I do not identify as a snob; someone who is “classy,” to use a word I heard so often growing up on the north shore of Staten Island. I am quite literally a Joe, after all. Furthermore, I do not identify myself as a gourmand or a foodie, terms which connote obsession or expertise with cooking and eating. I am someone who quite simply cooks and eats.
More importantly, I am someone who cooks for someone else.
My wife, an especially capable person who has won awards for toxicological research, does not cook. I would not mention that fact if she were not publicly forthcoming about her often disastrous experiments around a stove. She would claim she cannot cook, but being that every person must eat or perish, virtually every able person cooks something from time to time. She shows off her Russian-Jewish ancestry when she cooks me matzo brie, which is basically kosher crackers and scrambled eggs. I especially enjoy this poor man’s delicacy on a winter’s morning. Everything else my wife “cooks” comes from the frozen food section and is unceremoniously nuked in the microwave oven.
My wife does not enjoy cooking, finds little artfulness or self-expression in the activity, and frankly, seems utterly lost in a kitchen. Furthermore, she seems to lack the ability to shop for cooking ingredients, wandering around in the supermarket like an illiterate in a university library. So I prefer to do the grocery shopping, and I do almost all the cooking in our home.
This reversal of traditional gender roles has been especially conspicuous to me since my wife and I moved to follow her career. I have been, sometimes blissfully but often awkwardly, unemployed, as in being a non-participant in the labor market. I have recently dusted off the old curriculum vitae, and would likely teach again if the opportunity presented itself, but there has been no circumstantial urgency to find such an opportunity. My wife has said, “You don’t have to get a job if you don’t want.” Worse, she has said, “Do what you want. Be happy.” She may as well have said, “Use your gills and breathe the water. Go be a fish.”
Here is a sad observation I’ve made of many (maybe most) males who have aged 40 years or so: They have no idea what they really want, and little capacity to be happy. I define “want,” in this context, as deep desire. By 40, men in much of western society have been so trained by social obligation and an incessant barrage of marketing that they’re not sure if what they think they want is really just what others want for them. They desire position and respect—a few might get a prestigious slot in an organization, a trophy wife or a fancy car, none of which will make them happy. I define “happy” as being content. The adjective “content” is closely related to the noun “contents,” which is the stuff that fills a void—perhaps, in this case, the void inside of us. I speak of a figurative hole, obviously, but I suspect it is related to the physical empty space inside of us. “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
In this Whitmanic sense, the stomach is the organ representing the deepest desires of males, resting just above the penis and testicles, and when men are unwell they fill it with bad food, or too much food, or too much booze, or other poison. Sometimes rare, ascetic men leave their stomachs empty and become anorexic. I suppose many men locate their deepest desire in their penis and testicles. I suspect grown men screw around on their wives or otherwise sexually self-destruct in the same way they eat and drink themselves to death. They are probably just as likely to blame their partner or mother for sex problems as their eating disorder or alcoholism. I have slipped into a mire of psychological concerns from which I will extract this discussion immediately.
It is sufficient and clear to say that the stomach is the center of the body, and the center of the body is the center of the soul. In this sense, cooking comprises soul work. Maybe more men should cook—I don’t know. I will say cooking, especially cooking for others, fills me with a sense of contentment I never found in cognac, cannabis, or couch dances.
I first starting cooking as a child. My brother and I were latchkey kids and were expected to do many of the household chores, including cooking. Later, during most of my teens and 20s, I worked various restaurant jobs, from fast food to fine dining. I learned some kitchen skills through the course of these experiences, but I did not develop a love for cooking. These experiences were chore work—and my efforts were little appreciated or poorly compensated. I certainly never dreamed of going to culinary school. Along the way, I met chefs. I even dated a chef—her cooking was masterful, but more importantly, she cooked with a conscious creativity so that technical skill blended with self-expression. In the early years of my marriage, I began to feel such a creative sense when I cooked things for my wife. It was like a musician or writer finding his audience. My wife appreciated what I cooked and her enthusiasm for it made me enjoy cooking.
In recent years I’ve seen how what I cook shows my life experiences. I’ll cook something as simple as French toast (my wife thinks it’s exotic) and I remember how I’ve been making that since I was 7 years old—from a recipe in Ranger Rick. My wife is a vegetarian (not a terribly difficult one) and I feel a kind of unity of life experience remembering an ex-girlfriend (a fairly militant vegan) and all the things I learned to cook from her that I make now for my wife. (My wife says the first thing I cooked for her was tofu scrambler.)
For myself, I’ll make a version of Chicken Florentine from one of my old restaurant jobs—The Parakeet Café in Bowling Green, Kentucky. When I make a homemade salad dressing from a mental sketch rather than a printed recipe, my wife is always amazed, but I was “salad bitch” at the 440 Main Street Restaurant, also in Bowling Green. I worked for several fine/casual dining establishments in Louisville, namely Bristol Catering, Judge Roy Bean’s and the Come Back Inn. Those were all, more or less, dead end jobs, but I still use tricks and adaptations of their dishes for my home cooking. I also use my friends’ experiences. I’m not native to the American South, so when I make cornbread I use my buddy Walt’s family recipe for cornbread baked in a skillet. So cooking at home, not on anyone’s production schedule but my own, I draw on a wealth of experiences and relationships to feed myself and the one I love.
Yesterday I pulled out my big wok and cued up the Tito Puente music. I fine-chopped a white onion and four cloves of garlic. I peeled and cubed two sweet potatoes. I cut little wagon wheels of yellow squash. I boiled the sweet potatoes and squash in the wok with two cups of water, adding generous amounts of olive oil, a good amount of salt, the garlic and onions, and eventually, about two cups of diced tomatoes and 32 ounces of black beans. I had the whole thing bubbling in the wok when I added about two tablespoons of chili powder, about a tablespoon of cumin, two or three tablespoons of molasses, and a few good squirts of Sriracha sauce. Then I added a cubed whole mango and a cup of finely chopped fresh cilantro and the juice of a whole lime. I turned the heat down and let it simmer a while. I served it to my wife on a bed of brown rice. She absolutely loved it. I have no idea what ethnic cuisine this dish represents—it seems sort of Afro-Caribbean. For lack of an accurate name, I call it “The New World Special.”
What I offer above is not a precise recipe but honest prose—I studied writing at the University. I studied cooking at the School of Hard Knocks, but I did give you some good hints you might use to nourish your body and soul. I tell you, thanks to the internal rhythm of the sweet potato, the Santerίa powers of cilantro, and the magic of Tito Puente, I danced while I cooked The New World Special. I do not care if I looked like a fool while I danced—I was blissfully alone. I likely looked like an ungainly white guy channeling Bill Cosby jazz dancing, but that’s precisely the point. Get out of my damn kitchen and into your own—and know that a kitchen is a good place for man to be.
Joe Schmidt is a poet and writer. He has taught writing courses for the University of Louisville, CUNY, and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, among others. He holds a BA from the University of Louisville and an MFA from Spalding University. His poems have appeared in River Styx, The Louisville Review, and The Prose-Poem Project. More of his writing can be found at joeschmidtwrites.com. In 2011 he hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. He lives in metro Atlanta.
This originally appeared on Joe Schmidt’s blog. Republished here with permission.