I am always, in the back of my mind, pondering things such as cassoulet. I ponder about cassoulet for reasons other than eating it; it is a small journey, as all good cooking should be, taken in the kitchen with things you make and collect over the course of weeks and months leading up to it. Cassoulet is a mirror of what you can and cannot do, what you have and haven’t. The final assembly is always a joy and a let down. A conundrum, a finality to a lovely jaunt. A bit like the opening of Christmas presents at the cost of losing the ribbons and bows and acknowledging that the tree comes down soon.
Many books have corrupted me. Many of them corrupted me in the first few pages, chapters and initial ideas. I’ve had to set them down, turn away and ponder the implications, often. Sometimes it is enough to know a few general things and merely savor them. One is “The Food of France” by Waverley Root. I’ve only read enough of it, 40-ish pages or so, to know I cannot finish it at the moment, or read another page for the foreseeable future. France, in his book, her cuisine, is divided into domains of fats, and each one has its’ own version of cassoulet as a result.
It is a dish of concept, a general and universal idea known by all, executed differently from region to region, house to house. It is known by all and unknown in all of the iterations it may have.
It isn’t so much cassoulet that causes me to ponder, however. It is the aspect of me, of cooking, of having a need and a scintilla of honesty to know that I cannot digest it all. It takes me time. I am slow and simple and thoughtful in ways that others maybe are without any need of preparation or precision for…
I have – I know now after almost 47 years of occupying space – one very basic rule in life. It is my rule, my one and only rule which I look for in everything and always try to give back to others. It is the reason I fall in and out of love, why I fixate, why I am oddly curious, and why I put things down and walk away on occasion… I have never really known this, yet I always have in some way… I’ve never had words for it, a general idea of it that others might understand. I do now. It is, simply, there should always be some sort of reward for your investment in things. Not a gold star or some slap on the back for showing up – a deeper reward – one that rewards your intelligence, your effort to know something better, to try and be better, to understand more… It is a difficult thing to describe, I think, because maybe it isn’t a reward at all. It’s like spending a life time wandering along, making up a language of your own, and then discovering that someone, somewhere else not only speaks it, but composes poetry with it, has lyrics and melodies to go along with it, that the most basic form of expression has been elevated into a grand art… Maybe it is simply a reward for knowing something obscure that suddenly makes sense. Resonates. Has meaning and realizing that there is a form and reason beyond you, beyond your imagination. A gift you never would have seen without the sight you gained along the way along some obscure path. Gifts are like that; they aren’t the things you imagine or strive toward – they are lovely miracles that show up, completely unintended, to which you suddenly have eyes for. They change the course of your life, and somehow bring it a new focus, a whole new paradigm to consider.
It is moments such as that which I do, often, walk away, and pray that someday I will be sage and thoughtful enough to appreciate all that is there, to know I don’t know, quite, what I’ve found. To realize the flaw is not in the object at all. It is in the eyes, the soul of the recipient. To know myself well enough to realize I do not grow in direct sunlight, but in ponderous shadows, under stars, an endless haze of cigarettes with beer and coffee in late night hours while the rest of the world sleeps. I am not fueled by butting my head against things and pushing harder. My river flows in the levity of analogy, comedic diversions, of discovering that there is no one answer to any particular thing, that there is always something parallel, and a little absurd about everything… Often, I walk away, set things down, ponder them because I know I need to grow and expand and learn before I can fully appreciate them all.
What then is it, this idea of cathexis, of finding love in things, or eudaimonia, the joy of doing things? Why and what is it with cooking? It is because it nourishes me. It is a challenging and humbling love of sorts, one which makes me realize the more I know about myself, the universe, the world of chemistry, of physics, mythology, of history, the better I know it. Cooking and making food, nourishes me far beyond the edible end result. It encourages me, constantly, to veer off on vast tangents and odd paths and simultaneously ponder spirituality and science, philosophy and physics… Maybe it isn’t love at all, of cooking, or making food. Maybe rather, it’s a gateway into myself, the world, and the excuse to find everything about me that I love and ever wanted to be…