Note: direct link is here: http://bourdainmediumraw.com/essays/view/1139
I sat down, and it just kind of flowed out...
Cooking Well: Defining the Human Spirit
Feast or famine? To most people, that is purely a phrase, but it was a reality of my
childhood. The components of our meals were determined by whether my father, who had suffered two major heart attacks, was working or not. However, I once observed “we may be poor as churchmice, but we still manage to eat like the Shah of Persia.”
To me, the kid with fond early memories of playing in the kitchen of the Cairo Café in San Francisco, it was a literal connection. The owner’s daughter Bebe was an Armenian who had been married to (and abandoned by) a relative of the Shah’s wife. The food her family cooked was amazing: dishes of lamb, or fragrantly seasoned rice, which my senses still taste and smell. Food was important in Armenian culture, and an awareness of past starvation was real and immediate---all the more reason to cook food well when it was available. I remember seeing a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm finish his dinner and laborously pick up every last grain of that fragrant greenish rice. “Concentration camp survivor,” my mother explained, “don’t stare.” At that moment, I made a connection, and wondered how many people who came there, refugees and emigrees, appreciated their food on a very different level than Middle America.
In our family’s lean times, I read cookbooks as if they were novels, visualizing preparation of dishes. Taking over the cooking as my mother’s health deteriorated, I took to heart her ways of making cheap meat taste amazing by cooking it with a splash of equally cheap wine. I grew a garden, and learned to make “peasant soup” with nothing more than a handful of vegetables and some herbs. My father was amazed at what I could make on a very tight budget. But it’s not the quality of the ingredients that determines the quality of the food, but what thought and effort, and heart, you put into it.
When my best friend gave me a cookbook written by women in the Terezin Concentration Camp, I thought of the man in the Cairo Cafe. These women, bereft of even the simplest ingredients, spoke of “mouth cooking,” comparing stories of preparing their favorite dishes and writing them down. It was a way of being in a different world, away from the privation and hardships, remembering what it was to cook carefully and with love, preparing dishes for their families. “The hunger was so enormous that one constantly ‘cooked’ something that was an unattainable ideal and maybe somehow it was a certain help to survive it all,” wrote Jaroslav Budlovsky on a death march. This fantasy cooking was connection, with food, with the past, their culture, and life itself.
Cooking well, striving for an ideal, is power: power over ingredients, over circumstances, power that transcends mere survival and pulls us out of ourselves into the heroic. One might eat, or cook, to live. One cooks well to transcend.