For the modern day human, the preparation of food is an unavoidable preface to the act of eating. Cooking is, in some ways, a necessary task, a means to an end that features a nourishing and delicious meal. However, cooking is also an opportunity to appreciate the food we eat and the people we share that food with.
I have seen or heard of cooking described in different ways: a finicky art form, a near-necessity, or a demonstration of domestic skill. A more optimistic person might say that cooking is a calming ritual or an act of experimentation. However you choose to explain it, most descriptors refer to cooking as an action by an individual. One person might cook for him or herself, for a family, or for a large dinner party. The resulting dish “belongs” to the cook; we give our compliments to the chef, or we ask the cook for his or her recipe. The ownership is singular.
Eating, on the other hand, is more frequently considered as an action of a group—something performed together. Perhaps you noiselessly slurp dark, caffeinated beverages of choice with your fellow workers as you exchange not-quite-awake greetings and distracted how-were-your-weekends. You might consume lunch with your colleagues, each of you unwrapping crackly, condiment smeared wax paper from the sandwiches you bought during the habitual Tuesday drop-in at the corner café. Dinner might be four splashes of stir-fry over four mounds of rice, set around a table that overhears, “Don’t play with your food!” or “Finish those peas, please.” On special occasions, you might sit across the table from your dessert-loving friend, with a chocolate lava cake oozing syrupy decadence directly between the two of you.
If cooking and eating are so connected, then why is one considered so solitary while the other thought of as a social experience?
I remember cooking Saturday lunch with my sister and parents when I was a lot younger. Noon light would be streaming in through the kitchen window to bounce off of the smooth tiles and granite counter tops. Usually, lunch was noodles, and making them required only a few, but quite particular, steps. I would first loosen a tangled knot of floury egg noodles, pliant and still raw, and place them in a mesh basket with a long handle. From above, my father would hover over a pot of boiling, steaming water, watching me as I carefully lowered the loaded basket to cook. Sometimes, I would pick up the pair of dark wooden chopsticks to give the tangle of noodles a shake and a splash, so that they would evenly cook; more often than not, my father would maneuver the chopsticks and vigorously shake apart the noodles for me. There seemed to be an art to discerning the right time for untangling the noodles. It also seemed to require an unusual amount of concentration to hold a pair of chopsticks in one hand and a basket of noodles in the other. These egg noodles are one of the first things I remember cooking, and they were always cooked together with family.
Clearly, cooking does not need to be a lonely undertaking; on the contrary, it can be a bonding and sharing experience as satisfying as the meal that results. The monotony of a chopping blade hitting the cutting board is interspersed with snippets of conversation that rise and fall with laughter and the rhythm of easy talk. A sizzling pan invites experimental pinches of seasonings from hands that have reached for fermented soybean paste, as well as fingers that have dipped into a jar of preserved olives, creating a unique blend of flavors and aromas. The environment is somehow more adventurous, yet comfortable, when company is present to share in the unknowns and tribulations of cooking.
Although the holiday season has passed for many of us, it doesn’t mean that we have to leave behind the opportunity to welcome others into our kitchens. Without the formality and bustle of preparing for a large family gathering or a social occasion, cooking with others forms a different experience. Recipes can be fused on the fly, and the timeline for dinner can be relaxed when you are cooking with one or two close friends who are here to enjoy the food as much as they are here to enjoy your company. Mismatched mugs and plastic cups stand in place of crystal glasses, and scratched forks with crooked tines and discolored plastic handles replace sparkling silverware. Conversations are intimate, and you find time to breathe and share the day’s events as you wash the last smears of sauce from you well-used dinner plates.
Who knows what delicious memories you’ll create next?