This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Before I sit down to really begin writing this — the entire amount of my work taken so far simply opening up a new Google Doc and titling it — I’ve decided I’m hungry and in order to really focus on anything at all, I need to eat first. It is currently 10:50 in the morning and this is my last sentence before doing just that.
It’s now 11:10, which isn’t an unreasonable jump of time. It was just breakfast: bread toasted in olive oil and topped with slightly soft and buttery eggs. In terms of procrastination meals, a modest one.
Yesterday, with an hour and a half before I needed to leave for a campus event, I decided that it simply wasn’t enough time to sit down and commit to my work. “As soon as you start going and are in a groove, that’s when you’ll have to leave,” I told myself. “It’s just not worth it.”
Whether or not that was actually true, I found myself with a pretty extensive amount of time, and it was about noon. Typically my lunches are leftovers from the night before or something really quick — like frozen potstickers either pan-fried or boiled. Maybe I’ll make myself a sandwich (last week I ate the same concoction of crunchy bread with flash-boiled broccolini, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and Calabrian chili mayo for three days in a row).
But yesterday, I decided I wanted to make an outrageously complicated and large serving of an improvised orzo dish. It was a riff of this amazing Food 52 recipe mixed with inspiration from a video I saw a few days ago on my Instagram.
The first step is to slice up your salami (if you eat meat), and cook out the oil to crisp them up. It’s fragrant and satisfying, watching the edges curl and turn a brickish red. When they’re done, I use a slotted spoon to transfer the slivers from the pan to a separate bowl before sliding in the mushrooms.
I love mushrooms. It’s perhaps become a personality trait of mine. And I have a running record of turning mushroom haters into lovers for this exact reason: you have to fry the crap out of them. Not even in tons of oil, but patiently. Let the water evaporate out of their bulbous bodies and watch as they transform into a beautifully crisp bite.
As soon as the mushrooms shrink and brown, I add in frozen spinach. Typically I hate how chopped and flake-like frozen spinach is, but it works really well in a dish like this where you want the vegetables to just melt into everything else. There are now lots of delicious brown specs littering the bottom of my pan so when I add my orzo to toast a bit — as if I’m making risotto — I make sure to keep scrapping and adding chicken broth. Once the pasta is cooked, I throw in chopped Calabrian peppers and sun dried tomatoes. Swirl parmesan into the steaming cauldron to get everything thickened, and top it all off with lemon juice and zest because no dish in my kitchen is finished without that duo, and fresh parsley I bought a day ago but is already going wilty in my fridge.
It’s come to my attention that I absolutely could have written 800 words for my own projects during this time. Cooking is often more than a source of fuel or procrastination for me, even though I started this column stating it was. When I’m cooking, however, my time is equally consumed. It doesn’t feel especially procrastin-ary — like scrolling through social media for hours might. I’m maybe following a recipe, chopping ingredients, stirring pots, and at the end of it all, there is a final product.
In a lot of ways, cooking is the writing process. The recipe, our outlines. Bulleted guidelines that we can decide to resist, omit, or freestyle off-of at any point. Don’t want to use heavy cream? Leave it out, or opt instead for butter and milk. Are Calabrian peppers a bit too spicy? Try a roasted red pepper instead. It’ll be different, but it will be just as good.
Before you can even get cooking, you have to chop and prepare everything; make your mise en place. To write a story, you need to research, gather the ingredients for your plot. Decide who your characters are and flesh them out; prepare everyone for the story to begin. And just like with writing a novel or memoir, you have to layer as you cook: the salami needs to go first so the mushrooms can cook in their oil; you can’t add the spinach until the mushrooms are done or there will be too much water for them to crisp up; once the orzo, or your main conflict is added, you have to watch so it doesn’t burn to the bottom of the pan, you have to add chicken broth bit by bit.
To find patience and enjoyment in the process is the art itself. I cook because it grounds me; I write for very much the same reason. My food and what I consume influences my writing because cooking is such a large part of my life. Beyond representing the process itself, the time I spend in my kitchen feeds my work. To lose or rush through one is to lose and rush through the other.
But it’s also a thing of the subconscious. And these moments when our faces are drawn towards the steam of a pot, when our vision blurs as we stir and stir and stir, that’s when a memory can rush to the surface unprompted, and an entire story takes form in front of us. When we melt into the silence, the scents waft up and remind us of moments. Starring at a screen willing an idea to come will lead nowhere but to forced starts and concepts. Make the food and your body will let you know. Just make sure to have a pen and paper, or the notes app on your phone, nearby the stove.