One of the most surprising things I've realized about myself during my trek through graduate school is that I like to cook. No, I love to cook. And furthermore, I think I'm pretty damn good at cooking. I suppose that's why I like it. Preparing a meal successfully gives me a sense of accomplishment that may be a little inordinate, but an accomplishment's an accomplishment, right?
It so easy to walk the wide and easy path when it comes to cooking during graduate school. Joe and I both work more hours a week than we'd care to count. Sometimes, I really don't feel like cooking. Most of the time, though, I can't wait to get into the kitchen.
I had only started to be able to cook well just as I started graduate school. Poor Joe had suffered through years over over-done meat and under-done potatoes until I discovered Food Network, Martha Stewart, and Alton Brown. The two former taught me that I wanted to eat beautiful, tasty food, and the latter taught me that in order to achieve said beautiful, tasty food, one must be armed with knowledge, and above all, patience.
Patience and knowledge. Perhaps it was fortunate that the two primary qualities of any great chef are the same that we often need on the PhD track.
At any rate, I've discovered as of late that cooking, baking, and all things culinary are not actually the respites from the day-to-day grind of grad school that I'd once imagined. In fact, they seem to me to be beautifully symbiotic.
I find myself honing my teaching skills as I work through a new recipe, talking myself through skills that seem implicit in the directions (deglazing, etc.) as if I am explaining it to an audience new to cooking. I remind my invisible students (and myself) that we take the time to do things because each small step contributes to the excellence of the final product. They're all miniature syntheses that make up the whole, marvelous alchemy that is cooking.
It's also easy to slip into academic reverie while stirring a sauce, or dicing vegetables for stew. I've written toothsome sentences, and even a thesis or two, while kneading bread or waiting for my rue to thicken.
I plan meals like I outline essays. How do these components fit together? Is simplicity the best approach, or should I lay on flourish after flourish and hope it all makes sense in the end? I often start with the main course, and let my mind wander until I find an appropriate way to expand the flavor profile to other dishes.
And, finally, like the brilliant and self-affirming synthesis that is graduate work, there reaches a point where once-complex dishes become integrated into your repertoire so seamlessly that you hardly need to consult a recipe before making them. I note with pride every time I make white sauce or bread from scratch after simply drawing on the familiar list of ingredients and procedures in my mind. I relish those moments I can look at the items in my cupboard, fridge, and freezer, and with a little thought, create something new and delicious because I instinctively know what flavors and textures will pair well together, and which will probably be less-than-appealing.
So, before you pick up that fast and easy snack one evening, I suggest you browse a back issue of Food & Wine, or whatever magazine or cookbook strikes your fancy, and take a chance on yourself in the kitchen.