Food, Being, and Time

A birthday cheesecake for me made by my friend, Laura.

I had a lovely get-to-know-you conversation with a new friend last night, and not surprisingly, two of my favorite passions organically arose in the conversation. I spoke with a fervor and enthusiasm about philosophy in the way that always reminds me of the fact that I truly do love what I am doing. To be able to practice philosophy as a lifestyle, and perhaps even someday as a potential career, strikes me as a luxury. But then, the conversation turned to food.

One of the best potluck meals of my life. Special thanks to Elise and Rollie.

With the exclamations of “Oh! So good!” while reminiscing some of my favorite mealtime memories, I was quickly put back into that invigorating space where I fully appreciate food and all that it means to me. I love the experience of eating, the creativity of cooking, and the connections that can be made while sharing food with loved ones and friends. I have realized over the years that my most immediate and lasting friendships have started off and mostly persisted in light of our shared love of food. Among the list of my foodie friends I can include my besties Jim and Hannah, Laura, and Elise and Rollie. My current relationship is very food-centric. And there are numerous casual friendships that started because the conversation turned to food, and often times, it later resulted in a meal.

Hannah and me making a layered crepe cake.

My passion for food has certainly heightened over the years, but it is not a recent development. While in high school, I remember being excited for those weekends when my parents would leave town. I wouldn’t use the time to throw an awesome party. Instead, I would go grocery shopping, turn on some music, get the lighting just right, and I would make myself an amazing meal. And I know that I made quite the impression on my current advisors in the philosophy department when I went on and on about the meals we had in the summer of 2007, the year before I was accepted to Penn State. One in particular said she finally decided to make her blueberry cheesecake in the summer of 2009 because I made such a big deal about it. She said something like, “If it was good enough to convince you to come to PSU, I decided I should make it again in the hopes of recruiting another student like yourself.” Her compliment was a mighty high one, but really, that cheesecake was something else.

Some of the most priceless memories of growing up with my family members center on the little things that they would do–like Sunday nights spent cooking with grandma, where I learned all my magic tricks in the kitchen (I’ll get to that soon), the treats that my mom would get for me when they were really too expensive for her budget, like TCBY and Little Caesar’s in the park, my dad and fish sticks (when he would cook dinner for us it seemed like it was often fish sticks with white rice and broccoli, or I remember him taking my brother and me to Skippers for dinner. I truly hated the red jello cup, but I think I secretly loved that I got jello at all), and my step-mom was always the one who had the goodies on hand, like M&Ms, cheese and crackers, and brownies. And ever since I was very, very little, the only gifts I could think to give my step-dad were salsa, chocolate-covered cherries, or beer. (Now I add wine to the list.) Don’t be fooled by the over-representation of unhealthy foods that stick out in my memory, because really, the most important thing is that I learned to truly value and appreciate good home-cooking and the love that sharing food can express. The “treats” are one thing, but the love of (and in) food and eating is another.

My “food subjectivity” (if I can throw in some philosophically jargony words now) has been shaped by the relationships around me. My very being has been supported by food. I have eaten, absorbed, metabolized, and digested food that has nourished me, helped me grow, supported my health and vitality (It’s no wonder why I love Nietzsche. Seriously.).  Even my perceptions and experiences of food reflect the people who have been around me.  My cultural upbringing has shaped my food selection. You have to be some kind of Asian in the middle of Idaho and a few generations removed from China to eat Top Ramen for breakfast, but I also know that my American upbringing has not prepared me for fully appreciating all of the food of the cultures around the world. (Maybe one day my dream of being Anthony Bourdain’s sidekick will come true.) But more simply, I have the appetite of my father, the taste for spices of my mother, the sweet-tooth of my step-mom, the pure love of eating of my step-dad, and the creative, inventive, and light-hearted attitude toward cooking of my grandma. It’s the cooking that I want to discuss now.

Jam and me at Plank in Fort Collins, CO.

Conversations with people about food seem to inevitably lead to the question, “What is your specialty to cook? Do you have a particular dish that you are really good at?” And I always have trouble answering it directly. For me, cooking is not about precision, and good food does not have to be judged according to its perfect re-creation of a particular dish. Neither does one need to follow strict rules or procedures to make a good dish. You don’t need to know the science of how ingredients chemically respond to one another, and you don’t even need to know what you are making when you start slicing an onion. Cooking good food can involve much more freedom, much more creativity, much more spontaneity, and much more heart than that.

The way that I cook reflects the uniqueness of a singular, temporally particular event. In short, I use what I have available right then and there. If I am missing a few things, I know it’s okay. I’ll add something else on hand that strikes me.  And the fun part is that usually, my most creative meals are inspired by that unexpected and unusual item that just made its way into my kitchen.  Like the time I had too many cucumbers to know what to do. I made up an apple, ginger, cucumber crisp. It was sooo good. And when I had half of a cooked butternut squash sitting in the fridge, I decided to cube it, almond-flour coat it, and brown it for a salad with toasted nuts and coconut. One of my favorite cooking phases started when Hannah visited and bought some grapefruits. The zest, juice, and fruit of grapefruits inspired many a simple syrup to accent some incredible goodies for a couple of weeks. And yesterday, I made some mean black beans with tumeric, coriander, rosemary and jalapeno pepper flakes for an easy “nacho” salad. I know for a fact that I will never have that same cucumber or that same squash ever again, so in that way my cooking is obviously only a momentary experience, but on a deeper level, the cooking happens as a singular event where multiple factors come together to result in a once-in-a-lifetime dish. I will never be able to recreate what I cook. I don’t use recipes and I don’t write them down. And I may not even remember everything that I create. I know that I have had many good dishes, great dishes, and quite experimental dishes, and I am sure that I have forgotten some of them, but that doesn’t mean that any of them have been less valuable or any less enjoyable. How’s that for some mindful awareness of the now? I guess my attitude is something like this: appreciate the moment as it is, the food as it is, and the experience for what it is–unique, transient, and yummy.

This was some white fish seasoned with a homemade chili spice from a friend. The salsa is all farm-fresh veggies from my CSA and the green things, those are an imaginative attempt at zucchini pancakes.

When I cook, I don’t have a plan though I may have an idea, but that idea includes open methods, undetermined ingredients, and a radical generosity towards the end product. I see what I have, which often times doesn’t look like much, but then I see what I can make. I’ve noticed that I feel very secure, safe, and at home when I have a fully-stocked kitchen probably because it easily lends itself to lots of meals. But there is a similar sense of security for me that comes from not knowing for sure what I can make. I guess it is a way of trusting that I can and will create something good to eat. Maybe this is where my religious bone has been hiding all these years–maybe the story of Jesus feeding the masses with a few fish, a couple loaves of bread, and that little jug of wine was meant to be understood by me in a slightly different way that says, “You can produce, create, and share some amazing foodiness with others, if you only keep your faith!”  So maybe I am professing a bit of faith. It’s a faith in the sense that it is possible to do something, to create something, to undertake a project without knowing what it is that you are doing, without knowing if you have everything that you need to pull it off, or even if it will work out in the end. My experience has shown me that it usually does work out. I eat it and it is delicious.

And then I begin to I wonder…. Might the uniqueness, the openness, the not-fully-knownness, the creativity, the connectedness, and the temporal specificity that I experience while cooking and eating also be reflecting something more about life in general? Maybe cooking, eating, and my passion for food has helped me understand and appreciate a bit about how to approach the world, my experiences, and my relationships.

How does one create a really good dish? Maybe it takes intuition, a bit of magic, divine intervention, or a stroke of genius. Or, maybe it just takes an impassioned appetite.

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