How I learned to Cook

Chowda
Chowda

As I’m planning a little trip to the California Bay area I am reflecting on how I learned to cook. I am delighted by people’s stories, and I am delighted by food, and the combination of the two even more so, and for me there was “a moment”.

I grew up without knowing much about food or cooking. My mother was not very domestic and didn’t cook much, she was more the “I can use power tools” type. My father introduced me to a few key things–seafood, Thai and cured meats, but didn’t actually impart the skills of making them.

Noone in my lineage was particularly into cooking, actually.

So, you know, I could microwave a potato, scramble an egg and I knew how to order a pizza.

okra
okra

I’d cooked in restaurants, terribly, mixing up giant vats of over-peppered stuffies in a hotel kitchen, frying eggs poorly for tourists in Puerto Rico, frothing lattes and shmearing bagels.

I ate stuff.

But I didn’t really GET  it.

When I was 20 I left Rhode Island for Bishop, CA via a long, meandering road trip with multiple rock-climbing detours. We ate a lot of sardines, diner food and carrot sticks.  A few months into this adventure I ended up in San Francisco visiting my sister, and we went out to lunch in Little Italy. I’m quite sure I was broke, and I’m sure the place we went was not the fanciest– I remember it as unassuming and the kind of place that would offer lunch specials that two scrappy young Rhode Islanders would like.

Cannolis
Cannolis

So I had a salad, and it was, like, LEAFY. This was 1998 maybe, before frisee was a household word.

The dressing was not fluorescent orange.

And then there was spaghetti. I thought I’d had spaghetti before. I thought I “knew” spaghetti, but this was al dente, covered in olive oil, like real olive oil, Calamata olives and diced tomatoes.

Some dude came over and grated Parmesan cheese onto the whole thing.

I coulda died.

Oh, and I had a glass of wine. In a real wine glass, not a Ball jar. Wine that enhanced the food, a concept I certainly had not grasped before.

At that moment something clicked in my head. Cooking is not hard. Cooking is, at its best, taking great ingredients, combining them with a light touch, and trying not to fuck them up.

That’s it.

It was like I unlocked this big, clunky, mysterious box and out spilled bitter, salty, sweet, chewy, lemony and oily, and I ate it.

I see people slogging through their cooking, following other peoples’ recipes to the letter, worrying themselves sick over whether it’s perfect enough, or healthy enough, or “clean” enough.

(Don’t worry, it is.)

And I just want to impart a bit of the joy, the meditation, the creativity, the rebellion I feel when I cook. Yes, occasionally cooking feels like a chore. But mostly it is a constant companion in my life’s struggle.

I now cook every single day of my life. I cook with my eyes closed, with both hands behind my back. I cook with my eyes, my nose, my ears, my mouth. I cook with my instincts. I cook things I’ve grown or foraged or bartered. I cook without recipes, mostly. I cook well, mostly. I can cook for 100 without fear. I cook and then I actually eat it. I cook for family, friends, lovers, dogs.

And I still make that simple Calamata olive spaghetti that changed it all.

soup
soup

Defending Herbalism, or not.

At one point in my herbalist journey I refused to read or listen to anything which criticized my path. Those jerks! What is their problem? Herbs are great! Haven’t they read my blog?!?!?! And then I sought these people out, just to get myself all fired up, to craft long, meandering defenses of plant  medicine in my head while I washed dishes or dug holes.

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My love of herbal medicines was fragile, like a precious bit of fine China, something I needed to protect and guard. And I felt like I needed to defend my right to use herbs and to make my own health choices, and I was interested in being right.

I would pick out the one point that they got wrong, while ignoring the parts which may have taught me something. Why can’t everyone see my way?!?! How can they possibly not GET this!?!?

But now, I don’t give a rat’s ass.

I have moved through the idea that other people need to believe what I believe. (Mostly.) I actively seek out people who don’t use herbs, and I am interested in why some people dislike them, make other choices or can’t access them.

I have tried things. like actually tried, not just read about them in a book or a  magazine.

I have seen examples where herbs and other “alternative” healthcare have not worked, are not the best choice, or are promoted in actively manipulative, confusing  or even potentially harmful ways.

And ultimately, I feel less threatened by others who want to prove me wrong. Go ahead. In fact, it would be helpful. I will read your critiques now, and sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong, sometimes both. I feel more confident in my use of plant medicines and my connection with plants, as well as my movement and nutrition choices, but I am always willing to learn more, to dig deeper, to ask questions, even of myself.

And I can see the humor in our humanity, the way we divide ourselves, the way we all form our groups and our paradigms and our dogmas and stick onto them like medicinal leeches. I am this and you are that. It is freeing to unstick myself from the sweaty leg of any one side, any one path.

And as I get older I have more of a grasp of what it means for a person and an idea to mature. I do love the new, fresh, youthful rage-against-the-system energy that innovates and wears hot pink and turns it up and  boinks everything that moves, and must yell THIS WORKS in all caps on every herbal forum. Juicy, but fragile. Now I am falling in love with this more mature phase that brushes off others’ hyperbole and panic, lets my actions speak for themselves and commits to just keep walking, outlasting the haters. Well, tries to.

I still want to debate people who disagree with me, respectfully, and I still want to share my love and joy around plant  medicines. And, OK, I occasionally still craft long silly arguments in my head. But I am not afraid of the other opinions and approaches anymore. And there are many sides, not just 2, not just for vs against, not just pro vs anti, not just woo vs science, not just tin foil hats vs Big Pharma conspiracies.  Maybe, sometimes, they have a point. Or maybe they are reactionary douchebags. Maybe they are just lonely or disconnected, and maybe we can be friends.

Perhaps now I’m strong enough to find out.

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