KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — I recently spent some time in the hospital. I'd forgotten just how bad food can be. Among other things I was served scrambled eggs with the texture of soggy cardboard and flavor of feathers, pork loin cooked until it was barely suitable for making shoes, and frozen vegetables seasoned only with water. I lost ten pounds and if I hadn't persuaded a visitor to smuggle in some salt I would have lost even more.
When you're passionate about some activity, it's sometimes easy to focus so much on the "how" that you lose track of the original "why". These days I choose what I cook to match the needs of catering clients or cooking classes. I also cook to develop article ideas and make decisions based on a dish's photographic potential. And I eat with a critical tongue: Too much rosemary? Too little pepper? Need something to add brightness? Is the texture right? I get so caught up in the details and craft of cooking that I forget why I began cooking: To eat.
A casserole I made the other night is a good example of this. I needed a new recipe for a web site where I write. It needed to be an inexpensive dish, somewhat low-calorie, easy to make, using leftover meat. I spent around an hour planning the dish (including writing out a starting recipe) then another hour making it, adjusting seasonings, and making notes. While it was cooking I planned the photographs and then I plated it and shot it. Finally I sat down and ate it, again making notes. The casserole was good, which I duly noted.
Too often I eat as a critic. Judging the tastes and smells and textures against existing expectations, prejudices, and history. Too often, my efforts meet these criteria.
I say "too often" because even if a dish - or entire meal - is exceptional in some sort of absolute sense, it's no better than I expected. Occasionally something does turn out better than expected and that's both revelatory and great fun. Such events are one of the reasons I cook and judge my cooking (and other's) so critically. But ironically, the better I get as a cook, the less often I'm pleasantly surprised and these days it often takes such surprises to get my complete attention.
The day after I got home from the hospital I was dying for a good meal. Something quick and simple because I was sore and standing for very long wasn't in the cards. So I made a sandwich, specifically a panini using thin-sliced country ham, raclette cheese, and sourdough bread - all of which I had on hand. It was a meal with no other purpose than tasting good. And boy did it taste good.
But after a week off from the kitchen (a week notable for its lack of decent food) I was ready to eat purely for enjoyment's sake. As I picked up my sandwich I noted the grill marks and delightful golden color of the rest of the bread. Biting into it had a satisfying crunch and there was a light note of carbon from the grill marks. The ham was sweet, salty, and almost meltingly tender while the cheese was pungent and unctious. I resisted my urge to wolf the sandwich down and made a point of enjoying each bite. A great meal needn't be fancy, it only needs to be thoughtful in the choice of ingredients, the preparation, and the dining.
As much as I enjoy developing recipes, preparing them, photographing them, and writing about them, the reason for cooking so is ultimately to eat - and eat well. When I become too caught up in the minutiae, focus too much (and not "just enough") on good technique or choosing the right olive oil, I lose track of why I set out to become a cook in the first place. It is my intellectual centers, not my pleasure centers, that are in charge of such meals. Fortunately, something usually comes along about then to remind me that the more genuine pleasure isn't cooking but eating. Especially if, like my sandwich lunch, the food is seriously good.
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