Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Return to the Kitchen

It's only in the last year or so that I've rediscovered the joy of cooking.

Before I entered the Jesuits, I was a flight attendant for a major US international airline. I was able to sample cuisine from all over the world, and on the days I was home, I would often eat out with friends. I cooked on occasion, but I found cooking real meals for one person to be a challenge.

A few years into my life as a Jesuit, I realized a couple of things. One is that I miss the experience of dining. Not the part about being waited on, or ordering from a menu, those experiences associated with restaurants, although that's all nice too. What I missed was the experience of long conversations at table, of developing friendships, and yes, delicious food.

Now, in all fairness, we eat well here at Ciszek Hall in the Bronx. As one of the menu planners, I get to plan meals that I like, and I'm willing to take risks with recipes and ingredients so that our menu is diverse, filling, and tasty. But we don't dine at meals. We sit for a specified time, eat our meals, and we have some time to chat, but it's not the same as setting aside time for a slow dinner, where the food can be really savored, and no one has to get up to hit the books.

I also realized that I needed a hobby, and I decided that that hobby would entail a return to the kitchen (we have a cook for dinners Monday through Friday). I find that cooking is an almost meditative experience. It gets me out of my head, and gets my hands to work on something tangible. Philosophy studies are very abstract, and the results, such as they are, often seem convoluted. In cooking, my mind is focused, my hands are busy, and I am always amazed at a process that takes the fruits of the earth, so many different kinds, and brings them together in an entirely new creation.

I am lucky to have grown up in a house where great cooking was appreciated. At some point when I was young, my dad discovered Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and dinner in my home was never the same. Now, we didn't eat French cuisine every night, but often enough my dad would break out the book and treat us to something incredible. He still has that book--it is a battered old thing, hardly legible on some pages any more--and he even had it signed by Julia herself before she died.

Count me among those whose interested in cooking was reinvigorated by last summers movie Julie & Julia. My mouth watered in that movie theater watching the recipes on the screen and thinking about how delicious they would taste. I had cooked before, but the recipes were simpler. MAFC is in a different league. But despite the complexity of some of the recipes, the breakthrough of the book was it's simple organization. If you've never looked at it, check it out. Ingredients and tools are in a column on one side, and they only appear as they're needed, according to the instructions in the adjacent column. Brilliant! If you can read, you can cook.

This year at Ciszek, about every month or so, I have a small dinner party for about 6 men of my community, first come, first serve, in which I prepare a multi-course meal, often with recipes chosen from MAFC. It's a chance for a few of us to slow down, way down, and share camaraderie over some good food, in about as close to a fine dining setting as one can get in a Jesuit community. Some of what I'll post will come from those experiences.


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