Its an almost universal experience, the pressure. although my time on this earth has certainly been short, images have been hurtled at me my whole life that time is running out. that you are not ripening but spoiling, more must be done, space must be filled, time must not be wasted.
But what is the waste? Where does this waste actually go? and what waste is created in suffocation? I cant help but think about the toxicity of fruit, veg, organic matter sat in piles of landfill, gasping for air and stuck in the purgatory of plastic. Eventually when this matter gets chance to pass over, we find methane squeezed out of the process, damaging more organic life and angrily greenhousing the earth. An almost vengeful spirit, dealing with its unfinished business. So why the rush to quickly discard? Why the lazy push to cram.stuff into space?
Even as I write this post, I am in the midst of process. Reflecting before I have even reached the so called destination of my writing. I dont feel urged to write this in haste but out of expressive necessity. Lets take this with a pinch of salt, and understand a blog not simply as writing, but as thinking, of affirmation and as foundations for mastery. The message is plain and clear, to perpetually fill space is to avoid the form of what organically lies around you. To obsessively pursue a void, is to ignore what life is thriving blooming and decaying around you. Today whilst listening to a podcast of film director Mira Nair, she set the backdrop of her home in Uganda, filled with forest and monkeys, I could taste the Chai being steeped in the pot and the fresh zing of Fattoush prepared with Chef Cal Peternell.
How lucky of me to listen to someone else chatting on my work commute?! But what Nair touched upon in her food preparations and reflections was that filling up the perceived gaps and spaces in our lives takes away our ability to develop creatively. The unfortunate crushing world we live in forces many beings into “productivity” into anxiety fillers and numbing agents. That what we do is somehow never quite enough. How depressingly inhumane.
My building repertoire of cooking skills gradually equipped me with a curious but critical appreciation for the foods which were on my plate, and how they arrived there. Even more so whilst spending time in a kitchen at a community drop-in, the openness exposed me to foods from all over the world, stories and practises which were shared and not, and a varied set of needs for people settling into life in Huddersfield, and all the turns that the asylum process throws at them. Our ingredients would largely come through donations, and the task was to assemble food to keep many different people, with different notions of taste happy. Eager to use my experience and passion to the kitchen, I expected that my talent would be given a platform. But when thrust into an environment of cooks much further in their food process, I found myself frustrated that my passion hadn’t been communicated like I wanted. That consistently my cooking is understood in relation to immaturity, not mastery. Ego was creating a bitter taste and I didn’t enjoy it.
Community cooking is an interesting way to understand balance and tension in very creative ways. Like many of the kitchen’s I have experienced or read about, the schema can sometimes be very basic: men, heat, testosterone, meat. Although you can find variety in how this formation manifests, the elements are pretty consistently there. My experience then working in a kitchen where the outcome was to feed many people the same dish at once, with donated ingredients, and without any pay, brought about a particular understanding of ego. The nexus of personalities and unique needs kept a bodily and gestural energy alive in the kitchen. Without any true lingua franca between us all, the language of the kitchen was laughter, touch, action and a shared experience of womanhood (or certainly that is what I picked up on in a room full of women). The beauty of this work came from listening, and developing patience. These women were thirty years ahead of me in their home-making, and really understood how to make perfect rice on call. Nobody explains how tho adjust your rice ratios for 50 people upwards, and my attempts left me embarrassed, and relegated to home cooking rice for a maximum 8.
For many, home- cooking is personal, it is an artistry, an expression of care and self. The intimacy of cooking for another person is similar to the nail-biting stress of getting a gift for someone you love. Every year when my Mother’s birthday would come around the corner, gift giving could be nightmare-ish, anything bought in a shop could be fair game for unsuitability, improper understanding of my mum’s taste or just not that great of a gift. As I grew up and understood my mum a bit better, on a personal level, rather than just parental, our relationship to presents became less stressful and much more negotiable. So instead of buying her perfumes, or jewellery or any other soulless stuff you can buy in a Shopping centre, I would write her long letters, homemade cards with drawings, and shared experiences like dinners, or excursions (depending on what I could afford). I would take the time to let her know I appreciated her on her birthday, and then find ways of demonstrating that. Much like when cooking with someone you care for can be a difficult path to finding what they like or would want to try, when a relationship shifts to understanding cooking as an expression of appreciation, things just taste much better. But everyone I cook for is sadly not my mother, and nobody has reason to be appreciative of something badly cooked, especially when they are hungry.
Rice is a dish which people are incredibly sensitive to. From perfectly fluffed Basmati with gungo peas and thmye, to sticky and clean Jasmine full of hot steam, I can certainly call myself a rice enthusiast. Red, nutty, and slightly sweet thai rice; mushy soft and sometimes sightly underdone Arborio, mirin and vinegar soaked sushi rice, any rice I am open to try! An unfortunate cooking stint at the drop-in lead to a firm understanding of the sacredness of rice. A pot of pulpy white rice does not settle well, and makes it hard to look people in the eye as you plop it down on their plate. An intentional gruel can be a fine thing, but there is a time and place for everything, and it certainly was not the time to serve daal, cradled by a squishy rice pudding. My rice wasn’t a complete flop, but the women of the kitchen were sure to let me know that they would handle things from then onwards. It’s sometimes hard to be laughed at in multiple languages, but sometimes a little humiliation can be the stepping stone for accessing a higher ascension in skill. Any great cook I know has had their spate with hubris, and their food only got better and better. Rice for the masses may not be my chef- d’oeuvre, but I can certainly enjoy somebody else’s caramelised rice, and put my energy into some channa instead. I’ll keep my tahdig for the comfort of my own home, with the nodding approval of Samin Nosrat through my T.V screen.
Having cooked for their families for years, having their own specificity to style, to cuisine and choice, I looked up to these women of the kitchen for guidance with cooking, and for their resilience. But it certainly was not an easy for me to surrender. Prior to these experiences my shadow defences were to blindly ignore other’s advice, (when unsolicited), be guided by pride and to openly critique anything which was fair game. It would cause me a great deal of distress to act like this, and to still act like this, but these actions are second nature. To be humbled by your failures, is to be alive and human. Clinging to the human-ness of the kitchen space is what kept me excited by the prospect of patience and learning, to be open to unsolicited advice and to discern the usefulness and the compassionate. In all things breathing is crucial. A space for form, a space to be filled and a space to deteriorate. What can I give to a world that comes after me, if I continuously stuff it full with my own pride, my own wants and leave nothing for growth or repair. I’m young now which I enjoy, but I am at a stage in my cooking life where I can demonstrate some forms of mastery. What I’m really excited for is the 30 years passing, where my repertoire with all its tentacles, rhizomes, decay and brokeness, I hope that I can still use my grandma’s dutchpot to inscribe the lessons I have learned through the ears*.
* and mouth, hands, eyes, tongue, heart, then years