The other day, my wife asked me why I cook fancy meals even when I’m really busy. I’m not sure that what I cook counts as fancy most of the time, but July certainly counts as busy—moving into a new house, taking subject certification exams, finishing up the alternative certification course proper, and trying to find a job for the next school year. That doesn’t count writing or my (modest) CampNaNoWriMo project for the month. I do cook dinner three or four nights each week, and often “re-condition” leftovers on one or two of the others. (Reconditioning usually involves adding more garlic and either a different leftover or frozen vegetables.)
It takes time. It makes dirty dishes, which take more of my time later. I could totally get away with using the slow cooker of beans I make every week to do most of the meals, supplemented with pots of rice and pasta or another pot of something stewish. My kids would be happy eating only rice, noodles, and fruit. The only person in the household who is really interested in having different things for dinner most nights is…me. So why do I do it?
Mostly, my dad is to blame. He cooked dinner every night he wasn’t busy cooking at the family restaurant. It used to baffle me how he could spend 60 or 80 hours a week cooking and running a restaurant and still want to be in the kitchen when he was home. I understand it better now: my dad really, really liked to cook. He also liked to cook new dishes, things that weren’t on the restaurant menu and never would be. The kitchen was home and laboratory and studio for him.
Cooking was also important to him—and now to me—because it’s an offering to the family. You’ve probably seen articles (and listicles) about “love languages.” Cooking was one of my dad’s. He liked food, but he loved to cook for his family and friends. That’s how he showed he cared, especially when other things were going poorly. Putting something tasty on the table and getting us all to sit down to eat it together was easier for him than hugs and words.
I like words. I love writing. Despite that, I’ve never written very much for the people I love. My wife is awesome, but I’ve only written her a handful of things in the 13 years we’ve been together (unless you count the many, many e-mails that went back and forth while we were living in different states). I’ve spent many more hours cooking for her than writing for her. I might even cook too much for her. There are things she likes to eat that she also likes to cook, and I don’t always give her the chance to cook them.
When I write, I like subtlety, allusion, and implication. That’s part of the reason why it’s not always easy for me to write for (or to) the ones I love. I can’t just come out and say it, you know? Big displays of real emotion are tough. Fictional characters can channel my real emotions without it being so…blatant. The extra layer protects my raw feelings. Even here on the blog, I hide behind quasi-anonymity. Some things are easier to say in front of strangers (even if many of my friends and family do read this blog).
I would love to claim as much control over my cooking as I exercise over my language. I can’t. My “secret techniques” are mostly garlic, fresh ingredients, and knowing how to avoid overcooking things. I know my way around a spice rack and a grocery store (thanks to my dad), but not enough to have precise targets in mind when I cook. As in horseshoes and hand grenades, close usually counts. I cook edible dishes that taste good more often than not. They’re mostly healthy, and when they’re not I make sure they’re especially tasty.
Most of all, though, I cook things for the people I care about. I want us to sit down and eat together. I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as I want us to enjoy what we’re eating. That’s even more true when we have guests. I might not be able to say “I love you, I am glad you are part of my life and at this table with me.” I might have a hard time writing my wife the poems she deserves (but I haven’t forgotten the sestina I promised you!). But I can fill a table with food, and the kids can set the places, and we can all sit and eat together. That’s why I do it: because there are some things that are easier to say with food than words.