Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

Life happens in the kitchen.  Life may beget life in the bedroom but it is nourished, literally and metaphysically, in the kitchen. When there is communion engaging the cook with the food being cooked, the anticipation of a good-enough meal  (it isn’t always ‘fantastic’ or ‘superb’)  transforms the experience into an inward journey of reflection.  The kitchen is a place ‘to be’, then, and cooking should not just be a chore.  And there are definitely days when having to cook degenerates into an unwanted chore to add to an already busy or chaotic day. But there’s life for you, ‘stuff’ – not to mention shit –  happens.  In the kitchen as elsewhere.

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Cooking is a love affair. Most people, I presume, cook for other people more so than for themselves and that means they cook for spouses/partners, friends, children, neighbours – which is to say that they cook to bring pleasure (as well as health) to those they care for.   My dear friend Clarissa, who lived in India and ended up dying there (too soon! Too soon!) told me of how many Indians she had got to know regarded eating out with a raised eyebrow of suspicion.  It wasn’t so much about the hygiene or the quality of the food being presented to them in whatever eatery but , rather, the ‘energy’ that went into the cooking process.   Mothers/wives/sisters cook with love – cooks in restaurants or on the street will prepare meals to make money.  With food being regarded as the prime source of energy, it has to be as ‘pure’ and as fresh as possible (which is why, in Indian cuisine, reheating is frowned upon).  The bottom line is that we have to be ‘conscious’ while we are cooking, aware of our feelings.  And when the feelings are not of the best kind … well, then, it is best to take a wee break.  Go to the loo. Throw away the rubbish.  Make that quick phone call you were putting off.  And then return to the kitchen, restored, and drink a nice glass of wine or other soothing drink of your choice.  Even a slight improvement in one’s mood works wonders.  So yes, one should wash one’s hands before starting in the kitchen.  But one should also take a look at one’s soul and ‘wash’ that too, if need be.

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I don’t know whether any of you have seen the 1992 film ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ set in Mexico? Well, the protagonist is Tita, and Tita doesn’t get to have the easiest of lives (I won’t divulge more because I don’t want to ruin the film for you).  Anyway, one of the most engaging scenes in this surreal film is when Tita is preparing the food for her sister’s wedding with Nacha, the family nanny. As they prepare the food some of Tita’s tears get mixed in with the batter. This results in an emotional riot that happens after the family eats the cake. Everyone feels smitten and is pining for their one true love. This happens again after Pedro presents Tita with some flowers. She uses the roses to prepare a sauce. As they are eating dinner everyone feels an intense passion. Her sister even sets the shower on fire with all of her passion.  And in another scene, when Tita is feeling sad as she cooks, the food, though delicious, has disastrous consequences on the bowel movements of the diners.  Well, I am not saying that we should all be like Tita or that we are even capable of such prodigious gastronomic magic but a little bit of that secret ingredient, love, never hurts.  Which is why I keep a postcard on my kitchen backsplash.

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Obviously, I wish I knew what I now know when I first started to cook on a daily basis – but I have also learned so much from kitchen disasters.  Making artichokes is a memorable one.  I didn’t peel enough leaves off the carciofi and though I cooked them for what seemed like an interminable hour, they were so tough I had to throw them away.  Adding wine to a beautiful sauce only to have it turn quite unpalatable:  yes! That’s because the alcohol content of the wine is bitter, so that’s why you have to turn up the heat to encourage the bitterness to evaporate or, alternatively, why it’s not a bad idea to cook the wine before adding it to a recipe.  I was making fish stock, once … taking time to crush the carapace of the shellfish for a better finish, and adding all the ingredients required for a bisque-type result.  I tasted it and pronounced it yummy.  And then I went to drain the fish bones and shells and shallot and parsley and black pepper corns etc … but instead of draining the precious liquid into another pot, I drained the stock straight into the kitchen sink and down the drain pipe.  Oh the dismay!  You can imagine.   Another time, my husband’s cousin visiting from Turin asked me to make the very Roman carbonara pasta for him, as a treat.  He did make the supreme effort of eating it, bless him, but he laughed as he said to me: “Jo, I love your food but … carbonara is just not for you!”.  And that naturally prompted me to keep at the recipe until I got it down pat..  Practice makes perfect, so I suppose we have to encourage mistakes.

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Accidents in the kitchen are a reminder of the resilience we need to build in other areas life, I suppose?

The film ‘Zorba the Greek’ has a beautiful message for us all, to encourage us.  Towards the very end of the film, the investment of Zorba and Basil, the man he calls ‘Boss’, results in utter financial ruin for both of them but especially for Basil.  Zorba, however, is drawn to resorting to laughter, calling this event a magnificent ‘catastrophe’, a ‘splendiferous crash’.  The pair of them end up dancing, in that memorable scene which is a choreography to life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlLChcOlLK0).  We all need a little madness, as Zorba recommends, in order to be free.  I very often cook barefoot in the kitchen.  And I’m not one for aprons, don’t ask me why, and don one only when I am giving cooking classes.  I assume aprons reassure the client … and I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

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The above is a photo of me, dancing … towards the end of a cooking class.

Speaking of practice makes perfect.  Conversely, it is also true that there are many pitfalls in striving for perfection at all costs.  I was reminded of this in recent blog post by Dwight Furrow from whom I would like to directly quote:In modern culture we are too easily seduced by perfection. We want the perfect job, seek the perfect look, strive for the best life we can achieve. We try to eliminate all the rough edges and imperfections until in the end we achieve—uniformity, everyone pursuing the same ideal. We strive for that ideal because we fear being different or showing weakness.

That’s boring. There is beauty in the imperfect and incomplete.

Asymmetry, simplicity, raw, unadorned austerity have their own attractions. Drinking from an old, cracked coffee cup, a face marked by an unusual line, a chilly, fog shrouded shoreline, or parched forbidding desert—when something is not quite right we not only experience a sense of  profundity but witness the source of vital creativity in life. A system that is too perfect lacks the diversity to cope with uncertainty. Only systems that allow for imperfection can evolve. There is no growth without adversity.” (https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2017/03/13/in-praise-of-imperfection/)

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We think we need the perfect kitchen to cook the perfect meal.  True, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with a big, fully equipped, modern kitchen.  I can’t tell you how many times I have caught myself moaning and groaning about the size of my kitchen.  “Why?”, I have wailed out aloud, more than I care to remember, “Why is it that I who love to cook and make meals for a nice crowd find myself having to cook in such cramped conditions?”   So much pining on my part.  And yet I have cooked countless meals in our galley kitchen, for up to 16 people no problem. I am glad that the last 30 years have seen a marked shift in the way houses are now conceived, with the kitchen being seen as the hub of the home and being allotted more and more space compared with our mothers’ generation. And yet statistics would show that people cook less now that they have better, modern,  fully equipped, larger and sexy kitchens!  What does that say about people’s attitude to cooking? The  meaning of cooking?  We all watch TV programmes with celebrity chefs and cooking shows, and salivate over the recipes being prepared but … but … spend less time actually cooking.  Why do we prefer the vicarious experience of watching food being prepared as opposed to the real-life experience of actually making the meal?  I think that maybe we have lost a little of our childlike propensity for playfulness.  Cooking has to be about playing, not just delivering.  The gadgets and the utensils should be regarded as toys, not just tools.  And if we can’t afford the more expensive tools, there are ways to make do with what we already have.  I used kitchen scissors for years before investing in a proper chef’s knife.  Lack of said knife didn’t stop me from cooking.  And I often still do cut the parsley in a big cup with the scissors, what’s wrong with that?

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When my husband and I first started living together, we were bequeathed a pretty good sized kitchen in terms of apartment space.  Four people could eat comfortably in the kitchen, six required cosy quarters. I remember when the oven temperature dial went crazy.  There was no way to fix it, the man said, so I ended up having to gauge the temperature on a hunch!  I would turn the oven on at full blast, put whatever roast in it, and then turn the oven on and off, as I saw fit, until the dish got cooked.  The stove top had only four burners.  I learned how to cook dishes in a particular succession, because four burners weren’t enough with the bigger saucepans taking up all the room, and not allowing me to use the four burners at the same time.  It was like playing musical chairs with the pots and pans, and I had to have a clear idea of how the menu would fit in.  I indulged in a stove with six burners as soon as we could afford it: ah, bliss! Also, I never seemed to have enough countertop space for the preparations or the food.  So I invested in trays.  I would place the food and utensils on trays, resting on the floor.  More musical chairs. Mark, my daughter’s guitar teacher, who came once a week for the lesson used to laugh his head off when he saw trays lying around the kitchen floor or on top of other non-kitchen surfaces.  But he conceded that it did solve the problem of lack of space.  You gotta laugh!

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A few years ago, I was asked to run a few cooking lessons for American students doing a summer session at an international school in Rome.  The person employing me warned me that the school’s kitchen was being refurbished so I had better check with the chef before starting. What she failed to inform me was that there was going to be no kitchen whatsoever during the time I would be teaching, and all I would be supplied with would be a fridge and an electric oven!  Now, there’s a challenge.  We used the school’s desks as countertops. Thank goodness I had been on a few girl scout camping trips, and had some experience of cooking outside.  I had a few propane gas cookers and managed to pull off the cooking classes by filling up my car with all the pots and pans and cutting boards and utensils etc that were needed.  Now that I think about it, it was just crazy, and think I should have been awarded a medal of sorts.

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6The pupils were fantastic, however, and I do hope they will retain fond memories of their experience.

Another great source of joy was cooking for events at our kids’ school – a sports day, for instance – together with other parents.  Sharing food is always inspiring, seeing the expressions of satisfaction and enjoyment on people’s faces.

So, yes, joy can be transported from our home to another space.  Just as a taste of ‘something’ can transport us back to our homes, our sense of security, our sense of self, our sense of rootedness, our community, even our purpose in life.

My husband happens to become addicted, let’s say, to the cantucci biscuits I make.

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The recipe calls for quite a big batch, so I get to make them about twice a month.  It’s what he has for breakfast.  It’s what neighbours and a visiting friend will have to accompany a cup of coffee or tea.  It’s what my daughter will take with her, to nibble at the office with her colleagues, when she comes to visit.  They are not particularly sweet and are full of almonds, and are light and filling at the same time.  I suppose that’s what their pull is, I don’t eat them.

Anyway.  Towards the end of January, a good friend who was going to be celebrating an important birthday chez other friends in France, wondered whether my husband and I would be coming along too, she needed numbers (naturally) in order to organize this weekend.  There were a number of reasons that were making this trip uncertain but fortunately, almost at the last minute, we were able to confirm our attendance.  And we also decided to drive there, it was not very far from Nimes, and we turned this into a little road trip for us to enjoy as a couple.

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We were to sleep in Genoa for the first night on our way up there, and in Sanremo on our way back.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable trip, the birthday celebrations superb and unforgettable(!), and the six-hour drive in two stages not bad at all.  As we had left our confirmation so late, our friend managed to find room for us to stay only in a small ‘gite’, some sort of holiday inn, because the hotels had already all been booked.  I didn’t know what to expect and so got to work.

I brought along a duvet (you never know, the place might be cold).  I also brought along our coffee maker, coffee, sugar, tea, mugs, honey and … some of my blessed cantucci for favourite husband. He thrives on good coffee, and he feels ‘restored’ by the cantucci.  When we got to the gite, it turns out they had a kitchenette so the propane gas stove I had brought along was not necessary.

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The duvet did help, however.  And my husband got to have his favourite coffee, in bed, together with the cantucci.  Home from home.

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I had also packed a rucksack with goodies for a picnic lunch after Genoa.  Wine too, bottle opener, fruit, the works.  We had dinner in lovely restaurants in both Genoa and Sanremo.  But the enjoyment of the picnic lunch was, well, somehow a thrill.  You get to feel alive, eating out. Eating outdoors. Two for the road.  A trip is all about adventure and novelty.  Bringing along some biscuits is all about finding comfort in the known. Somehow, you feel as if you have no cares in the world.

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Have rucksack, picnic rucksack, will travel.

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Have food, will cook.

Jules Blaine Davis’s mother chided her for relying too much on take away/take-out meals in the course of a week.  She told her “We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

So many of us do sports, go to the gym, do yoga, or simply walk the dog.  And we all know how important breathing is for our well being, both physical and emotional.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Slowly does it.  Breathe in through the nose, not through the mouth. Breathe in gently, as if you were taking in the scent of your favourite flower: and that will make your sternum open and the diagphram allow more oxygen to be drawn in.  In and out, like the waves of the sea.  The sea I love so much to swim in.

The word inspiration comes from the Latin for ‘breathing in’.  When things come to an end, they ‘expire’ … from the Latin for ‘breathing out’.  I hope my food blog brings you some inspiration in the kitchen, or encourages you to want to BE there more often.  The recipes I make are not that hard, do not necessarily involve expensive ingredients (although I quite understand that some ingredients like extra virgin olive oil are more expensive outside of Italy), and are meant to encourage you to create your own recipes, your way, coloured by a bit of fun and games, the odd giggle and  yes, even the odd tear. We are only human after all.

In Chapter six of Zorba The Greek, he says to Basil: “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.  Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humour, and others, I’m told, into God.”

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I don’t know about this turning into God business, but I think we can make do with celebrating life, no?

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P.S.  The photos of statues, frescoes and paintings are from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.

3 thoughts on “Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

  1. What a wonderful post Jo! Loved the photos taken at Palazzo Corsini! Did I tell you that the day we went there it was closed for some reason or the other! Sheesh! Oh well…another reason, besides yourself and your beloved husband, to return to Roma!

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  2. So much to ponder here… but one thing that struck me was your comment about kitchen space and utensils. So true. You can always make do. When I think about the space and the tools that my beloved grandmother had to cook in and with—and she turned out the best food I’ve ever tasted. Many of my neighbors have “trophy” kitchens and can’t make a proper omelette… The funny thing is that I have a nice sized kitchen myself now, and yet I *still* manage to run out counter space when I’m cooking. I’ve accumulated a whole array of knives and gadgets, yet I always go back to the same three or four tools when I cook. The rest gather dust the drawer. I guess it’s all a matter of what you’re used to and how you manage what you have.

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