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Cooking as Collaboration

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I’ve been on a bit of a food kick lately. I mean, who isn’t, right? Food sustains us, it keeps us going. And, when it’s done well, it surprises us, delights us, makes us want to eat way more than our bodies want us to. Really good food is exciting.

A few weeks ago, I took a cooking class with my husband.

It was our Valentine’s Day gift to each other — an attempt to stop buying gifts altogether. The menu was vegan, which led to a lot of apologizing to friends who asked me what I was doing that night. (I’m mostly a vegetarian with some occasional seafood-related exceptions. but totally game to try something new.) We’d slipped into a dangerous pattern at home: we were eating the same five (super quick) meals and he was doing all of the cooking. Like, all of it. Like, whenever I mentioned I wanted to make my incredible asparagus pizza for dinner on a weekend, I was bracing myself for a parade of “Are you sure?” and “You know you don’t have to.”

We never cook together, which is important to the story here. I would continue working long after acceptable work hours and have to be dragged away from my computer. Or, on the once a month occasion when it was my turn to cook, he’d sit on the couch, glued to his phone. We didn’t talk about our days, we didn’t offer to chop or sauté or even assemble the ingredients. And when it was time to go grocery shopping for the week, I’d make the shopping list by myself, perpetuating that five meal pattern.

Now we cook together all the time.

It’s only been two weeks, so really I shouldn’t be making these bold claims. Growing up, I was taught that it takes thirty days to really form a habit, a track record I keep shattering every time I try to go to bed early to read. One misstep won’t ruin me. Yes. Yes it will.

Our counter space is almost nonexistent, but our kitchen is now a gathering space for our family of two. We collaborate on the week’s menu now, shifting through beautiful cookbooks and the recipes we took home from our class. Last night we made a meal I’m so impressed with that I’m tempted to put it on our weekly rotation, despite the time commitment and my drive to keep trying new things.

And in the process, we’re learning about each other, which my husband is shocked to learn can still happen after six and a half years together. (I’ve grow so much in that time! And his priorities, in life and career, have shifted a ton too.) Just the other day, I learned that he really hates baking with me. Really really hates it. But he loves the end result. So he was our grocery runner when I fucked up. He was in the kitchen keeping me company the whole time. And he served as our unofficial quality control. Next time, he’ll assume those roles from the beginning, not just when the recipe goes south.

Here’s a side effect: I won’t stop talking about it.

Over tea yesterday, my friend Danya called my collaborative cooking a lifestyle. The other day, Alex, a fellow vegetarian teased me about how much I talk about potatoes as an important ingredient. And my husband is kind of gloating because I’m properly salting my boiling water. (Me, a child of the 80s who grew up with salt-less pasta. Me, a descendant of Italian immigrants who were afraid angering the American food pyramid.)

But I really won’t apologize for it because that one class made a profound impact on my life. I’m enjoying the process again, not just the end result. And that’s the main reason I love being a playwright. There’s so much process — reading, researching, writing alone in your room or office or wherever. That’s the menu planning stage for me. That’s shifting through cookbooks and finding the right balance of time and flavor. And then there’s the rehearsal process, that magical time when, for one week or (when I’m truly lucky) six, I get to experience the magic that comes out of working with a director, dramaturg, actors, and designers. Every last one of them crucial to the process. Every last one of them, cooking in that kitchen right along with me.

Great cooking is collaborative.

There’s a reason Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was focused on cooks learning from each other. There’s a reason professional kitchens are full of cooks, all with their own job. There’s a reason why every episode of Chef’s Table focuses not on the food, but the process — and the folks who helped along the way. And even when those chefs are in their own kitchen, they’re working with others, they’re making adjustments, they’re continuing to improve. Hell, even the Documentary Now parody of Chef’s Table, Juan Likes Rice and Chicken, starts to make those associations between ensemble performance and a really excellent meal.

Last month, playwright extraordinaire Mike Lew used a cooking/baking metaphor to describe the difference between a new play workshop and a new musical workshop.

He’s super smart. Y’all should read the whole thread.

But here’s my point.

Playwriting is a lonely endeavor. There are not enough coworkers and too much jealousy and not enough time or money or anything else that’s needed to run a successful business. But it’s taught me to be collaborative. So I’m extending that collaborative spirit into other components of my life. Right now, it’s cooking. Later this year, it might be board game nights or boxing classes or god knows what else. But one thing I do know is that I love cooking again. And I’m going to do everything I can to keep that love alive.