Inspiration has become something of a favorite catchphrase for foodies of every kind. We’ve all discovered or re-discovered our creativity through media bombardment – recipes on TV, online and everywhere you look, gorgeous, gorgeous photos, cookbooks with fresh new slants, and budding chefs with bold outlooks (and tattoos). The flip side of food as mundane practicality is food as grand theatricality. The difficult thing about the Foodie Revolution is that rather than inspire, it can perversely overwhelm when it comes right down to the day in day out realities of home cooking.
I love food, I do. But more than anything, what I really want is to know how to cook food that I like, that makes sense to my palate. I want food that neither falls victim to canned and processed convenience nor a slavish allegiance to “seasonal” eating. Cooking should be easy and simple, but not air-headed and thoughtless. Yet I also don’t want to feel like I’m competing with a world of alarmingly productive food bloggers and celebrity chefs every time I step into my totally not Top Chef kitchen.
I just want to cook and eat in a way that feels good to me.
A Muse then, is the food person – among the many, many food persons – who gets me in the kitchen to do just that. Inspiration is an intimate, personal thing – and sometimes I find all the noise rather too exhausting than inspiring. But then, there are the voices that quietly beckon in a way that cannot be ignored, which seem to subtract from the noise rather than add to it. In an age where information is plenty, but inspiration still rare – the Food Muse has left her footprints on my kitchen floor through the following souls.
Way, way back in the early 90′s, when I was living in Bangkok and a cooking show was a rare thing to find on television, the first TV chef that got me in the kitchen was the fittingly named Galloping Gourmet. What I remember was his hyper-crazy yet somehow endearing presentation, his quite frequent use of asafoetida, and that the very first time I ever made brownies was from a recipe I jotted down from his show. (No box mixes in Bangkok back then, and we were a family more likely to be eating rasgulla and kalo jam than brownies). I still have the little slip of paper on which I wrote down the recipe.
In college, I moved out of the dorms and into my own apartment, solo, in NYC (not recommended for someone young and recently transplanted from a foreign country). The only way I could console myself from feeling so desolate and displaced was by tuning in, every night, 8 p.m. sharp, to Emeril Live. It’s not news that food is comforting, but I had no idea how to cook it. During those bleak food days, I dreamed of “smell-a-vision”, gahr-lic and cooking impossibly delicious food like Emeril. He never actually got me in the kitchen, but he was the first ray of hope.
In this era of food snobbery it has become something of a national sport to sneer at RR’s brand of hyper-bubbly cutesie food. But if anyone remembers RR- The Early Years, before anyone knew what a food blog was, and the only other people on Food Network were established chefs like Emeril, Tyler, Bobby, Mario and Sarah Moulton – her contribution to the novice cook and the eventual rise of the celebrity chef culture (and I would argue even the foodie culture) – is indispensable.
Back then, I had no idea how to grocery shop, what the hell fresh rosemary or thyme or Italian flat-leaf parsley was – how to use it or how to store it. Her real time demonstration made things seem immensely doable – a skill, that the other chefs though culinarily more talented than she, didn’t have. The “chop and drop” deftly demystified the mise-en-place that was standard on the other shows. Everything from EVOO, to the large cutting board, to shopping for a knife, to how to de-seed a bell pepper, to cooking with wine, to the often mocked garbage bowl (“the ol’ GB”) and innumerable other small tips that no one else had mentioned before really formed the backbone of my kitchen habitation. I finally got how to cook with ingredients found at the typical American supermarket and explored new-for-me ingredients like smoked paprika, capers and Gouda cheese. So I’ll always have her back, no matter how snobbish the Snooty-Foodie Brigade gets.
As the Food Revolution swelled on and things began repeating themselves on TV, I discovered baking. Baking, I find, puts you in a whole new zone – it’s a different world. Cooking is intelligently winging it; every dish is a first date. Baking requires precision and yet is somehow meditative, demanding the attention and patience of a long-term relationship. When I was living in Boston, I found Flour, owned and operated by a Harvard graduate who had ditched a career in financial management to pursue her dream of opening a bakery. (Who doesn’t love that story?) I read an article about her in Fine Cooking and was bowled over by the dedication, thoughtfulness and love for her craft which was later more thoroughly showcased in the blog she wrote while recipe testing for her cookbook.
“Flour” is possibly the best name for a bakery ever and is apt for her philosophy of simple American baking but to exacting standards of perfection. What resonated with me the most was learning that because her family is Chinese, she didn’t grow up eating chocolate chip cookies and brownies par course. In the interim period, where you get to dream about those goodies before you ever actually taste them, you’ve elevated them to a level in your head that is very difficult for the real-life prototypes to match. I know that feeling. I have yet to find MY perfect chocolate chip cookie. That’s why her baked goods are not fancy, but they are So Good.
If Rachael showed me the how-to cook, Nigella has given me why-to cook. With her, I learned the magic of food writing. No one expresses the deep interconnection of how we live, cook and eat as applicably as she does. On the first episode of Nigella Bites, she makes a gorgeously smart Deconstructed Pesto Pasta, and proceeds to eat it the way most of us normally do – on the sofa, in front of the TV, with a bowl, stuffing her face. What’s not to love? Plus – this:
“Real cooking, if it is to have any authenticity, any integrity, has to be part of how you are, a function of your personality, your temperament. There’s too much culinary ventriloquism about as it is; cooking for yourself is a way of countering that. It’s how you’re going to find your own voice.” – from How To Eat
That, in a nutshell, is my whole philosophy on cooking, baking, eating and living. Plus, her British palate, somehow more connected to a side of the world I so miss, works for me. I’ve yet to find a recipe of hers that I haven’t repeated several times.
And then there are the ones who inspire you in a way that cannot even be put in words. No recipe formulations are needed, nothing fancy is required. It pierces right into the very heart of what it means to cook. It’s ineffable. All I can say is – I don’t like eating fish. But -
“But there on the counter of the kitchen, was that beautiful big striper, cleaned, scaled and ready to bake. It was stuffed with scallion greens, garlic and some shreds of lean bacon, doused with a little white wine, dotted with butter and then swaddled in tin foil and baked in the oven. [...]In a small pan, we made a reduction of chopped bacon, butter, white wine and garlic, strained it and dribbled it over the fish when it was cooked.” – from A Writer In The Kitchen
It made me want to eat fish right away.