This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
I open the save folder on my Instagram account. It’s early enough in the day where I’m already thinking about this evening, that roiling hunger that starts for me around five and doesn’t end until I’ve had two, maybe three, servings of dinner.
The first video that pops up is a video of a Korean mother showing me how to make Rotisserie Chicken Kalguksu. The next video is of pork bulgogi and the one beneath that is a baked apple, pear, maple, and ginger compote. Most of the videos here, actually, are about food. Most of what I think about most hours of the day is food.
My mom says I get it from my dad. We’re two people who can roll out of bed and immediately eat. Scarf eggs and toasts and large bowls of food down our gullet. Often, it’s the nauseating ache in my stomach of hunger that wakes me up in the morning. Even after Thanksgiving—when the rest of my family is still too consumed by the feast of the day before—I will need to make breakfast, will feel my stomach caving in on itself.
My dad probably got it from his mom, or his mom and dad. Two first generation Italians who loved their sweets and ate them, too. Our family talks about recipes like they’re living, breathing stories. The list of ingredients and handwritten instructions not merely a sheet of paper, but the evenings they were made, the events they were brought to, the holiday conversations they fostered. A recipe is a device, a catalyst that cannot be torn from the memories they elicit.
For instance, fried dough is ostensibly a simple recipe. At least the way my Nana and I would make it in their tiny Florida kitchen. She’d buy premade pizza dough from the grocery store, the soft kind that squished between my fingers and came wrapped in plastic like a present. She could have made it from scratch, but she didn’t.
All we’d do was roll pieces of the dough between our palms, dunk them in oil, and shower them with cinnamon-sugar. She’d fry them until we had a towering plate’s worth. Again: the recipe was simple, the effect outstanding. Whenever I think of her, still, I think of us by that stove. I think of fried dough. And the sweet sugar I’d lick off my fingers.
I spend so much of my time wanting to develop and create overwhelming masterpieces (this is where the connection to writing becomes clear, perhaps). The kind that use a pantry-full of ingredients and take one, maybe two hours to perfect. All those videos I find and save onto my phone, which cost far too much in making—both financially, and personally. Only to be reminded that the simplest meals are often the most delicious. The roast chicken thighs with squash, how the rendered fat from the skin seasons and flavors the autumnal gift below it. Where you can count on one hand the steps you took.
Recently, my mom and I went through her old recipes. Their washing machine had broken and flooded the pantry beneath it, so everything that was salvageable had been tossed into the attic in plastic bags. (In all honesty, not that different an organizational strategy than she was using before.) My dad wanted a specific chicken salad recipe she used to make for lunch that day, and so we set about opening stained, creaking cookbooks and carefully unfolding half-tattered magazine recipes.
“Hudson went through a phase where he loved this one,” she said, holding up a recipe that very well could have been a lost letter from the first World War, all burnt and torn around the edges. “It wasn’t really chicken French, but it was similar.”
I looked at her then. My mom has never loved to cook. But, she tried. She made good enough meals that fed and sustained us, often rolodex-ing through the same fourteen meals each two weeks. The red curry chicken with boil-in-a-bag rice. Pasta with chicken broth and peas. Italian sausage with red peppers and onions.
“You know, you really did try.”
“What do you mean?” She asks.
“You really hate cooking but, I mean, look at this. You’d save recipes and try new things. You did want us to like it.”
“I thought if I could make it fun for all of us, then it’d be easier.”
We go back downstairs and she asks me to help her with the salad. I happily oblige because it means I get to chop up lots of things into teeny tiny pieces, which is probably my favorite part of cooking anything. The meditative rhythm of knife hitting wooden board, the pull and drag of metal. I get lost in it, my mind goes blank.
Moments like these, I’m brought back to cooking with Nana in her kitchen. But I’m now the one calling the shots. As my mom moves about finishing up other items or putting out small catastrophes, I sink my hands into the rotisserie chicken’s meat and pull. One by one, I clean off the bones and put them in a plastic bag for later broth creations.
The purpose of food, the purpose of art, is to satiate us. To fill our stomachs and selves until there’s a warm glow where an emptiness once was. We gorge ourselves and come back for more, waking up the next morning eager to try something new. And always, without a doubt, we come back to simplicity. Masterpieces are lovely and fun, but they should be rare. Not every week-night dinner needs rival Noma. Not every day spent at my keyboard clacking away or every piece I create needs to be revolutionary to be good. The good is in this methodology, in satisfying the need.
My mom and I finish lunch. Our bodies step together but apart; we don’t really talk.
We say so much.