Writing and cooking

Writing à la carte – or rather, how to excel at cooking and writing

I will never excel at cooking –at least not on those days when I’m working with an unfinished chapter. 

At times I’ve wondered whether humanity is divided into two categories; that there are people who grow up with books, and people who grow up with pots and pans. (OK, I know, I know. This is the era of YouTube and fast food – which means that plenty of people grow up with neither. But that, surely, is a different story for a different day.)

Then there are the Nietzschean super-humans: namely, those who can both cook and write. This is a marriage made in heaven, for it combines some of the most exquisite elements of all human existence – words and tastes – and so it is no surprise that many belonging to this fortunate category have published their own cookbooks. For example, I found Joanne Harris’s The French Kitchen – A Cookbook years ago, and the pages 174 and 175 (roast vegetables with couscous) have become attached to one another, so consumed and food-stained are they. Ditto for Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Le ricette di Pepe Carvalho, whose paella recipes are a constant challenge and inspiration for me.

I’d like to claim that I belong to the privileged group of Montalbán and Harris. But, alas, I don’t. I grew up with books and words, and my first encounters with the world of cuisine were shocking to say the least. But then I married an Italian – an Italian who loves cooking – and I was forced to redefine my relationship with all things kitchen. This just shows that some Darwinian evolution is possible, even in this field. (But only if you try really, really hard.)

So there I was, a newly-married PhD candidate whose only experience of cooking was to write down a chosen recipe (see? writing again!), study it carefully as if it were a complex scientific hypothesis; and then take out, somewhat intimidated, all those magnificent-sounding ingredients – and to make a mess out of a recipe that sounded so neat and simple on paper. Afterwards I would throw away the result, and spend ages cleaning the burned pots and pans.

For some reason I had imagined myself tripping along in a flowery apron, a little like Doris Day (though… I wonder if she ever cooked?) and churning out one Michelin-starred dinner after another. And it simply hurt my vanity that the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth – that there I was, scrubbing clean blackened pots, my cheeks red with frustration and fatigue.

In situations like this there’s no middle way: you can either surrender for good, or you can strike with full force. I decided to opt for the latter, and so I enrolled myself in a cooking course at the Cordon Bleu school in Florence.

I spent one month chopping onions. And preparing sauces. Evening after evening.

Yet then something strange happened.

I fell in love with cooking. It was no longer a question of vanity and conjuring up a MasterChef meal… or even putting together something edible. No: I realised that there’s something magical about creating new tastes, just like there is about creating new stories.

So I ended up studying at the Cordon Bleu for two years, and I still look back on those evenings with great fondness. It wasn’t just about the food, though; because Cristina Blasi and Gabriella Mari, the founders of the school, have created a wonderful community of students. You’ve got professional cooks visiting Italy and people taking sabbaticals and studying Italian language and cuisine in Florence – and then you’ve got people like me, bona fide bunglers; and the wonder of it all is that all these people coexist happily and even learn from each other. (Oh, and if you want to know more about the school, just click here.)

Like all converts who become passionately engaged with the world they’ve entered, I was obsessed with cooking for a few years. I really was. I collected recipes and cookbooks, and after each lesson I walked to Bartolini (a well-known kitchen shop in the heart of Florence) with another Cordon Bleu student, a fledgling Japanese chef, to ogle all the magnificent cooking gadgets. Such as that little device, I can’t remember its name, which helps you to flame a dish with rum or liqueur…? Yep, that one. I saved money for that as well. And I’m ashamed to admit that I have used it exactly… once.

Studying cooking in Italy wasn’t just a celebration of tastes – no, it was also a jump into the world of new words, for nothing is as rich as the Italian vocabulary of cooking. There are some glorious terms for cooking, such as nappare, which are so specific and precise that it is hard to translate them into another language.

More than ten years later, cooking has stayed with me, albeit in a less fanatical form. Which brings me back to the topic of this post: that is, can you cook and write well at the same time?

Evidently it all depends on what we mean by cooking and writing “well” – in other words, what that added constituent of quality means. But suppose that we all agree that writing well means that what you put on paper comes straight from your heart, and you save no effort and imagination to create the most perfect sentences possible – yes, if that’s the case, then it seems improbable that after a day of intense writing you put on your chef’s hat and start experimenting with new flavours. Because as with all things creative, you can’t cook well if your mind is elsewhere.

What saves me nowadays is that I have a treasury of basic recipes I’ve prepared so many times that I can cook them in that semi-somnambulant post-writing-day state, and they still taste sort of all right.

But, but. There is still a danger that an idea comes to mind in the midst of cooking (a character talks to you, or you see a scene from a new angle) and I absolutely must write it down before I forget it. And so I leave my pots and pans simmering on the cooking top (because, after all, I’ve cooked this meal a gazillion times, I can handle this) and sit down and write and write and write… till I notice that the air in the kitchen is thick with smoke and our dinner has been reduced into a charred lump that is as stiff as it is black.

And scrubbing the pots and pans later on, my cheeks red with frustration, I realise that there truly are two types of people: those who write well and those who cook well.

And try as I might, I will never excel at cooking –at least not on those days when I’m working with an unfinished chapter.    





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