Ordinary Cooking Takes Courage

Friends are the people you feed and that feed you. – Corey Caitlin

I realized recently that when it comes to cooking, I have a privileged background—at least, compared to most of my friends.

When a Twitter buddy mentioned that he’d never cooked a meal in his apartment, making do with restaurant food or microwaved supermarket meals, I was shocked. People live like that?

And then I remembered all the interactions I’ve had with friends over the years about cooking, normally after they’d had dinner at our place. Friends who’re afraid to reciprocate an invitation because they “can’t cook as well” as us. Arriving for dinner at our friends’ house to learn that we’re going to a restaurant instead, among signs of anxiety: “We’ll pay. You’ve come all this way.” Friends (men and women) who reveal they’ve never cooked a meal in their lives, because at home their mother always did the cooking. What’s going on?

To cook for someone is to open a relationship with them, to be vulnerable, to risk rejection. We’re offering the most basic type of gift, and it’s the basicness of it that makes us hold back, by triggering our fear of being ordinary.

I learned about this concept in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. She talks about our fear of being ordinary in this interview on emotional intimacy:

The overwhelming message in our culture today is that an ordinary life is a meaningless life… I use the shame-based fear of being ordinary as my definition for narcissism… No matter how happy and fulfilling [our] small, quiet life is, [we] feel it must not mean very much, because it’s not the way people are measuring success.

We’re afraid to cook for friends, because unless what we cook is extraordinary, remarkable, and celebrity-worthy, we fear we’ll be found out. And once people realize we’re ordinary—so the voice of shame tells us—they’ll reject us and our food too, and we’ll be worthless. No wonder driving to the restaurant seems like an easy way out.

Take our addiction to recipe books, which we use to shield ourselves from the vulnerability of making intuitive choices. Or the “30 minute meal” with its implication that we’re too busy to cook, and that spending an hour cooking is below us or too ordinary. Then there’s the “convenience”—read, protection from vulnerability—of supermarket ready-meals and fast food “restaurants”. All this effort to protect ourselves, and yet if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we’ll never truly connect with others. Providing sustenance to the people we love is essential to our relationships.

I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember.

Before we were tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, I remember standing on chairs with my brother, helping Dad cook dinner. We used grown-up “sharp” knives (paring knives), which freaked Mum out at first, to chop ingredients. We were part of the team. And when we stayed at my grandpa’s house in Manchester, I stood on chairs early in the morning making bagels: exciting because we formed them ourselves. Grandpa would give you a hunk of dough, which you’d roll into a sausage and then join the ends to make a bagel. During brunch (bagels, smoked salmon, proper cream cheese), I remember pointing out the bagels I made—what a proud moment!

My parents taught me that cooking is something that everybody does. They also taught me that the only way to develop is to work it out, to keep on trying. When I was a teenager, I’d cook dinner for the whole family: chicken and carrots with basmati rice.

I remember a couple of instances where I stopped, found Dad and asked for advice: how long to cook something, how much of an ingredient to add. He refused to answer, telling me to go back to the kitchen and work it out. It wasn’t long before I gave up asking, and I’m still grateful for what he taught me: don’t worry about getting it right, just try it out and see what works.

While we run away from cooking because we fear being ordinary, ordinary is exactly what our friends want us to be. They don’t want fancy, they don’t need elaborate, and they dislike pretentious. Our friends want us to be ourselves, to be real, to be vulnerable: and if that means a simple spaghetti bolognese, roast chicken, or dahl, prepared with love by us, they’ll love it, and they’ll love us more for making it.

If you want to make cooking for friends a bigger part of your life, here are some ideas to get started.

  1. Invite your friends around to dinner regularly.
  2. Learn about the ingredients you love to eat. If you love butternut squash, look for seasonal squashes in your supermarket or try the farmer’s market. If you like curries, see what spices your local ethnic store carries. If you’re into meat, find a specialist butcher and ask them to recommend cuts you haven’t tried before. (Meat-eating Londoners, don’t miss The Ginger Pig.)
  3. Use recipe books and websites as an inspiration rather than an instruction manual. Try combining elements from several recipes and substituting ingredients that are in season or readily available.
  4. Trust your intuition and taste over measurements and timings. Improvise.
  5. Try out new ideas or recipes with your significant other or a close friend. A dinner party is the wrong time to try out new stuff, so practice it first.
  6. Don’t be afraid to cook the same dish for the same person twice. Originality is overrated.

If we all spend a little more time cooking for each other, our lives will be richer for it.