You Learn To Cook By Cooking

I love to cook. To me, flavors and textures are like colors and lines are for a painter. The variety of food that grows in the area where I live always astonishes me. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Pennsylvania was the leading agriculture producer in North America, meaning today there are a lot of specialty farms and varietals. Experimenting in my  kitchen with new foods and combinations of flavors is fun.  Though the kitchen is the center of our home, my husband can not cook at all. I mean he can not even boil water, though he likes to improvise Swedish Pancakes and very occasionally Swedish Meatballs.  You can imagine he was quite happy about my foodie tendencies when we got married.
When we first got married the culinary adventure was a novelty to him and me; we entertained a lot and almost always had house guests to experiment on with new recipes and dishes. Even with all of those volunteers, and catering for friends, my production exceeded consumption. We simply did not know enough people to eat the quantity of food I was cooking. My husband suggested culinary school.

Culinary school was a good idea, but its structure changed how I cooked and even how I thought about food. I learned immediately that cooking at home and cooking professionally both involve food, but the similarity ends there. Learning new culinary skills meant changing my perceptions and cooking processes. It was an adjustment, but I now prefer cooking professionally to recreational, home cooking. You learn how to cook properly by repetition; mastering technique, execution and presentation requires patient practice until it becomes second nature. As I became more proficient the scale and precision of the professional kitchen became more and more appealing and I more or less stopped cooking at home for a while. My husband was not too happy about this change in focus, but culinary school was his idea – it was the law of unintended consequences at work. And after all, Jacques Pepin calls his culinary bible  ‘Le Technique’ not ‘just hope for the best.’ Hoping for the best is not really the way I want to approach a task that involves process, judgment and interpretation.

Do you wonder what does this have to do with studying?

This week I have been doing a lot of cooking at home and also a lot of studying and reading. My reading list is Charlotte Bronte and H. Rider Haggard – a very interesting combination to say the least. The similarity of themes and use of conventions is striking while the difference in their techniques of expression is startling. When I first started in this program I would never have read two texts simultaneously; and I always read the primary text a few times before reading any criticism. It was very difficult for me to spot conventions; comparing and contrasting things like narrative techniques was also tricky. Today as I was cooking at home (risotto with a fabulous sofrito, tempura vegetables with basil saffron cream, and spumoni) I realized that critical reading skills have become second nature too, just like my culinary skills. Reading now feels like cooking does, and I learned how to read critically by doing it, the same way I learned how to cook properly.

I also realized that reading critically, like cooking properly, is fun; a lot more fun than buffaloing through a text and hoping for the best results at exam time.  It is much more enjoyable to skim some criticism before reading a text like ‘She’ or ‘Villette.’ When I started in the English and Comparative Literature program at Goldsmiths’ College I wondered if reading skills would ever become second nature. Now it is just like baking a cake.

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