Tonight’s dinner was whole wheat penne from Trader Joe’s with butter and parmesan, which I made at about 6:30 after roughly 9 straight hours of knitting while watching Chopped, This Old House, and that Jacques Pépin show where he brings in his friends and family to cook with him and then gently teases them about how they chop onions. I love that show. The day sort of got away from me and then I was too hungry to decide what else to make. Trader Joe’s whole wheat pasta is one of the worst foods I’ve ever eaten and I’ve been apologizing to myself for buying two bags of it for a few weeks now, but I’m not exactly in a position to waste food even if I didn’t generally disapprove of the practice. Luckily this was the last of the second bag. I over-salted it, so I’m compensating with a glass of whiskey. It’s not working out as well as I’d hoped, but at least the further I get into the whiskey the less I care.
I haven’t felt terribly excited about cooking the last few nights. Some combination of stress and feeling sick and not having time to work on my meal plan has led to a lot of “I don’t know, I guess breakfast for dinner?” decisions. I think my kitchen creativity is actually being hurt by the triple carton of eggs I bought on my last grocery shopping trip. I bought so many intending to bake, but it’s just too easy a protein source and there are so many of them in the fridge. Today I had breakfast for breakfast, though, so dinner came down to the only other thing in the house that takes about 8 minutes to make.
I go through cooking phases like this from time to time. They usually line up with periods of no money or high stress or unhappiness or being overworked — sometimes all of the above — and I think the relationship works in both directions. If I can’t have fun cooking or eat enough or eat a wide variety of foods, I don’t feel as good, and when I’m not feeling great, I have less energy to spend on anything creative. The thing I try to remind myself of when I start lamenting this lack of creativity is that I’m just taking care of a physical necessity, not painting a landscape, and so expecting food to fill a creative gap all the time just isn’t realistic. Ultimately, eating is about survival.
That doesn’t mean I enjoy it when I have to spend some time in survival-eating mode, it’s just that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently better about cooking yourself a fancy meal as opposed to just making some pasta when it’s what you have on hand or have the energy for. But cooking something complicated from scratch does have a meditative effect for me, and spending the afternoon making a big meal with side dishes and a million ingredients does make me feel like I’ve accomplished something. In a lot of the conversations I have about food these days, I take the stance that getting food into hungry people is the most important thing, but I also know that when that bare minimum is my only experience of food it can be demoralizing and exhausting. I’m fortunate to typically have a lot of wiggle room in my life when it comes to the grocery budget, and it’s rare that I am only eating to stop being hungry. I usually can enjoy my food on an aesthetic level, so I usually try to.
I grew up in a house where the only point of food was to keep you alive, not out of necessity but out of my family’s shunning of anything–well, anything that might make you feel joy is the kindest way I can think to put it. We ate the same foods, prepared badly, over-salted and topped with margarine, again and again. As soon as I was old enough to buy and prepare my own food I got right to it. Learning how to cook and developing an appreciation for fresh ingredients, for flavor — for flavorings beyond salt, margarine, and the can of black pepper that I think was older than I was and which I had never seen opened — was a huge awakening for me. I’ve tried to bring that feeling with me into how I eat and cook as an adult. By my late twenties, after a decade of experimenting with new foods and fresh produce, I kind of thought I had a handle on it, but then the whole first year that I joined a CSA turned out to be a whole new lesson in what food tastes like. The first few salads we ate from that first box, I kept saying to my husband “I think there’s something wrong with this lettuce,” because I had never realized that lettuce could have a taste.
So, I have these two sides of my approach to food. On one hand, I think that if I’ve eaten enough not to feel hungry anymore then I’ve achieved the main goal of food. But on the other hand, I feel like if there’s no pleasure to be had with food then there’s a whole world I’m missing out on.
I suppose my point here is that tonight I had the opportunity and the ingredients to make a meal I would have enjoyed cooking and eating, but instead I made something that I don’t like and I didn’t even do a good job of cooking it, and I’m trying to sort out which part of that, if any, I think I should feel I failed at or try to improve on next time.
In conclusion, here’s a picture of a pot roast I made last week. I did everything right with this one.