Thursday, November 5, 2009

9:14 p.m. aka Thank You, Judith Jones

I'm so excited about Judith Jones' new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One. Have a look and read her delightful posts. I especially love her notion of recipes as a means of storytelling.

I think I've always liked the idea of cooking. I would watch my mom make the simplest and the most decadent of dinners, and sometimes she would put me in charge of making a salad. As I chopped a carrot, the aroma of buttery garlic sauce, or a slow-cooked roast, or a fresh mango salsa would waft in and out of the corner where I made our starter.

As a freshman in college, I lived in a tiny dorm with an even tinier fridge. My roommate and I usually had enough room for a bag of turkey, carrots and cold M&M's, which meant the dining hall was our main source of (non)nutrition. I didn't cook much then.

When I moved out of the dorms and in with my two friends, we thought we'd always cook beautiful dishes. We didn't. Mostly, I ate toast and made fun of a roommate who made Hamburger Helper to appease his picky girlfriend.

Summer came, and I lived with three other girls for a summer in Washington, D.C. and ate tomato salads, sauteed broccoli and still gained 10 pounds from eating bagels in the NPR cafeteria and too much Chinatown food.

And then I went to London. For four months, I lived with five other girls (probably illegally) in the tiniest flat imaginable. The refrigerator was bigger than the one in my dorm three years before, but not by much. Sometimes someone would forget about the remains of salad. It would go off and leave a rotting vegetable smell that took my breath away every time I opened the door. London is expensive. But at the time, London was very expensive. The pound was worth twice as much as the dollar (the two times I've been back since have been far less painful). I quickly realized that I needed to do a better job of buying and cooking...for one. There was no sense in buying several fillets of fish for them only to go bad. Not all of us had to buy bread. We could split one loaf for the week between three of us.

After work, Kristin and I would pick one of the many shops up or down Hogarth Road and carefully buy exactly what we thought we needed, which usually consisted of lots of cheese, wafer-thin salami and Cadbury eggs. I was getting better at cooking something recognizable, but it was tough. Usually I made some sort of pasta with vegetables. And I figured out how to make it last through the week. But it got kind of old.

Luckily, there was T.

Together, we walked across the bridge to Waitrose, and I followed, like a student, as he whirred through the produce section, choosing an onion and rifling through the tomatoes until he found the right one. Hardly stopping to look, he reached for a loaf of bread, and then he picked up a small but substantive sized block of mature cheddar, and without getting distracted by the long rows of magazines, he got out of there.

T knew how to eat — and cook — for one, and he knew how to do it rather inexpensively. The first meal he made for me was a sandwich with the groceries he bought that day. The cheddar was so rich against the buttered soya and linseed bread. I can still taste the pungent slice of onion. In my memory, it might have been the best sandwich I'd ever tasted.

After that, I watched T closely — what he bought, how he made it. The simplest ingredients tasted so lovely. Gnocchi, leeks, bacon. Toast, cheese, honey, pepper. He cracked a soft-boiled egg over a dollop of mashed potatoes and a crab cake, and it tasted like gold — a melty richness of yolk and garlicky potato skins. He showed me the best way to roast potatoes, and I swaddled the thin slices with onions, Maldon sea salt and a liberal drizzle of olive oil. Maybe these combinations and lessons should have been intuitive, but T was patient with me. He answered all of my stupid questions. And when he saw I'd accidentally turned the gas on instead of the oven, he quickly righted the wrong and kept his sense of humor.

Spring arrived, and I had to go home. In love, but lonely, I cooked my way through the summer until T visited four months later. I moved into a one-bedroom apartment, bought my own box of Maldon salt and halved the dinners we'd made in that London flat. On MSN chat, T talked me through the first made-by-me pasta bolognese. Having made those roasted potatoes so many times, I knew exactly how many it would take for two, so it was easy to figure out how many for just me. Yeah, I missed T, and I certainly missed London, but coming home to my own apartment (especially if it happened to be cozy and clean), lighting the stove and sautéing the garlic became my beautiful routine. There was always a package of gnocchi in my pantry and mature cheddar in my fridge. Little, everday reminders of cooking lessons from London.

I don't cook everyday. Recently, I ate just toast and tea for a week. It can be difficult to find the point to cooking when you're by yourself. Cleaning up isn't much fun. I don't have a kitchen table. I don't always feel particularly inspired. There's no one impress, but perhaps that's a good thing. It's hard for me, sometimes, to find the motivation. I would equate cooking to exercise. It's difficult to start when no one else is around. Who's there to judge? However, there's something wonderful and nurturing about having an hour or so to make a bit of a mess and create something for you. Just for you. If you manage to pick up the chopping board, it gets a little easier. A glass of wine also makes it slightly less painful. By the time you reach your last bite, you're really happy you did it, and you feel good. And then you can go to the gym.


Marcos said...

Sarah, this was wonderful. I think we should have a dinner party and cook recipes from the book !

Kristin said...

Love this post. I can remember T whipping up the most glorious meals and being so jealous. It's time for me to visit- you can cook and I'll bring the wine.