I’m finding it harder and harder to write about food when the world seems so immersed in chaos. Hurricanes rage and people rage and the rapidly changing weather rages, muscling its way into conversations with friends. All the while gardeners lament their low crop yields and I’m here sitting under a downpour in my French village 24 hours after a day that seemed to come straight from the howling hot and windy Sahara (plenty of such days this summer in Rome).
I love food. I respect food. Food is often what makes an otherwise wanting day whole and lovely again — the plan of a sweet dinner after a day’s labor, the joy of sharing it with loved ones or friends, the calm it brings after an overwhelming day of stress.
Food heals. Food is a tool from which a work of edible art sometimes emerges. As the food takes shape, the world’s woes recede and remain quiet for a time. Don’t bother me, I’m cooking, I tell interlopers. Stay outside, cares and woes, I am creating. I am scrutinizing my fridge for the fragments that will be pieced together into this evening’s work of edible art, or if not art just something edible. In the end, maybe all my efforts will be good for a couple of really good-tasting dishes, just enough to soothe the savage beast. Or is it breast? Yet food is antidote to ruffled days. It can make them feel less daunting.
The world has changed before my kitchen eyes. Life seemed to me more stable, relatively speaking, before 9/11, before the Internet, before we knew so damned much about everything and everyone. Now we’re swamped by the need to process seemingly endless information, both good and bad.
And so on those days when I discover a friend is dying, a hometown is under water, or I feel a country, my country, is slipping, courtesy of its president, into the deepest hole it’s ever known, my only road to sanity runs through the kitchen. Tune up the pots and pans, look in the larder and make something from nothing.
All it takes is a dish in the oven, maybe one I haven’t made for years or haven’t made at all, to get me back into the present, into the moment. That almost-burning smell puts me back in my body. My senses are honed, my taste buds are tingling, and once in a while I discover or invent recipes I could never have imagined. That’s what cooking can do to a fraught day.
Oh, glorious kitchen, can you save us from our woes? Can your oven sweet scents of caramelized onions on overcooked vegetables make us thankful for our small blessings, for our neighbors who shared their bounty when our own garden withers?
What about those two perfect tomatoes on a vine we thought wrecked by high winds? What about the bacon in the fridge, the bacon we thought we didn’t have? Could there be a carbonara to save a summer night with a January feel?
So hail to kitchens everywhere. They can be better life-handlers and consultants than good shrinks, doctors, or even mammas. And the next time a savage beast or breast comes calling, try chicken soup. It might not know what hit it.