There’s something centring about the act of cooking. Put it down to my churchly vocation, but I’ve long imagined the preparation of food as a contemplative act — there is a spiritual calm that comes with it. Whatever the day has held, an hour at the kitchen bench brings me home. As I dice, sauté and stir, I am drawn back to the gift of this moment. I am at peace.
I must admit, though, the vocabulary of cooking is far from serene. More often it’s the language of rage. The food writer Marion Halligan points to the verbs associated with the preparation of food: chop, grind, mash, crush, pound, beat, whip, sear, tear, crack, mince and stuff. The truth is, she says, the transformations essential to cooking are impossible without a good deal of violence. It’s true: with all that slaughtering and skinning and hanging and bleeding and skewering, its a tortuous business we are in. It makes me wonder: is there something more going on in my retreat to the chopping board?
My partner has a theory about the spouses of clergy. Almost all of them, she observes, read murder mysteries. What inner rage simmers beneath those serene exteriors? What longings for revenge are hidden just under the surface? I am sure both are good questions, though I note how quickly I move to change the subject!
The business of cooking has long had its darker side. Religious art from earlier centuries made connections between feasting and ‘the flesh’, between cooking and ‘the devil’. The 17th century English bishop John Earle wrote of the cook, “The kitchen is his hell, and the devil in it, where his meat and he fry together.” More recently Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential provided snapshots into cooking’s underbelly. No doubt, kitchen rage is a thing, and not only of the past.
I am quite prepared to admit that there is nothing unblemished in me. There may well be a bit of unconscious venting going on as I pound the veal or smash the garlic. And as I sharpen my knife blade against the steel, there might be more than just a perfect filet of tenderloin in mind. Still, life is messy and so am I. Purity of heart is about as fanciful as a perfect croissant. Like the delicious pairing of sweet and sour, perhaps the combination of calm and rage can enliven the soul’s palate. Really, all I can do is pour another glass of something smooth and keep chopping.