Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Food Consciousness #1 - Umami Mama's Story

while working in the kitchen, the inevitable question comes up between cooks. "Why did you want to be a cook?" you get answers like, "I love food," or "I needed a job and I liked the commercial for the culinary school," or "I WANT TO BE THE NEXT FOOD NETWORK STAR." sometimes its more cohesive, such as, "I was a cook in the army, and I really enjoyed it and wanted to learn more," or, "I come from a family as a third generation chef, and I can't imagine doing anything else." obviously these answers show the extremes, from the absolute naive and insipid, to the mature and conscientious. my answer falls somewhere in-between, with a good mixture of child-like inspiration and monk-like discipline.

my path to becoming a cook started in the summer of 2005. nine months prior i had been struck with bi-lateral pneumonia and endocarditis and it had taken all of those nine months to recover. i did manage to get a job doing office work for a law firm, but once you've stared Death in the face, many things become clear, like what you really want to do with your life. i know it sounds cliche, but honestly, Death gave me a rare and precious gift. the gift was a question: "What would you be happiest doing all day long." my answer was simple: " i'd be happy peeling and cutting carrots all day long." strange that Death would be concerned for my well being, but there's the cosmic joke. i had experienced unlimited pain, complete weakness, and bad hospital food for MONTHS, and i wasn't in the mood to tolerate anything. so, the idea of peeling and cutting carrots all day long was, in fact, HEAVEN.

when you are hooked up to machines and can't do anything for yourself, you have a lot of time to think and plan. i remembered in high school taking one of those tests to see what would be the best career path. my top three careers were: 1. Doctor, 2. Chef, 3. Writer. now, i was more clever than i should have been, and pretty much knew how to answer the questions to get the results i wanted. having insurmountable "proof" on my side, i was all set to be a Doctor. huh? well, you know the old story of parents wanting what's best for their kids since the kids don't know what's good for themselves. i forgot the whole notion of "Chef" and "Writer," simply because they weren't real goals. as my parents told me, i was meant for something more.

so, after nearly ten years of working in the entertainment industry (yeah, i ended up going to film school on a lark!), almost dying, and finding myself completely, existentially "Adrift" (yeah, i ended up getting a philosophy degree also), i realized that i no longer wanted to be a paper-pushing, smooth-talking, high heel and pencil skirt wearing, office managing bitch. i wanted to do something real. something that had true worth and skill and meaning. i wanted MORE.

they always say, "Do what you love." i had overcome so much, that i realized i did have the strength and courage to finally do what was so clear to me years before. i loved cooking. i loved food. i loved the history and traditions, cultural meanings, taboos, religious practices, centuries old techniques that are still used today, and i loved reading cookbooks and food writing. and truth be told, it all started with PBS and watching The Frugal Gourmet.

i remember as a kid, aside from watching the twilight zone, kung fu theater, benny hill, star trek and foreign films (yes, strange kids grow up to be even stranger adults) that i loved watching cooking shows. now of course there was julia child, new york master chefs, yan can cook, but it was "The Frug" and his blend of wit, history and storytelling that taught me food is more than just sustenance for the body, but also for the soul. it's because of him that i eat hummus, that i begged my mom to buy me a chinese cleaver and wok when i was nine (still have the cleaver and use it at work everyday), that i first learned how to roast garlic, the intricacies of a jewish passover meal, how to cook with wine, the joy of sharing this with friends and family, and the importance of making food something special.

we sometimes forget how hard we work at things like putting the right outfit together, decorating our homes, naming our pets, choosing a hairstyle, what car to buy, and other personal aesthetic choices that portray ourselves in a better light. but truthfully, Brillat-Savarin said it best; "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." what better an indication of who we are than by what we choose to consume, satiate our base desires, and express our frivolous self-indulgence. even more so as a cook, whose art is in creating and upholding standards of true taste and culture, that the quote can be easily changed to, "Tell me HOW you cook and I'll tell you WHO you are."

and so, it seems the path was clear from the very beginning, but i had to go the long way around and figure things out, not the hard way, but my own way. now, all the loose ends are coming together. cooking and writing, my crazy notions and perspectives, and a true sense of self-worth. working as a cook has given me the opportunity to do something and make it the very best it can be, no matter how simple or daunting the task; whether it be chopping herbs or making a complicated jus, and it is because of this that i truly value my time, efforts, actions, everything i do in and out of the kitchen.

in the future, i hope to eventually teach, and of course keep writing. dare i say it, but i think i love writing more than cooking these days. evolution? perhaps, but food and cooking is still my inspiration for it all.


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