an open letter to food lovers on a very COVID Valentine’s Day
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” W.C. Fields
Quarantine has reignited the romance . . . with cooking. It all began circumstantially. We were in more and going out less. Going to the grocery store was the closest thing we had to going on a date. Life’s pace slowed. And reality set in, a new reality—one where we were spending more time at home.
We’ve been interacting less. Social media and streaming services became is our main source of entertainment. Meetings are on Zoo and people are live streaming. It’s surreal. It’s funny how binge-watching and social media scrolling didn’t seem blatantly vicarious until a Zoom meeting became the height of our weekly social interaction.
Rediscovering the Joy in Cooking
Long before quarantine, I had become the “DIY guy” of cooking at home, only going through the process, the lifeless, dronish following of recipes. I enjoyed cooking less than once per week. When I did, it was not like when I began to love cooking. There was a tinge of disappointment. The process seemed repetitious. It was forced into routines so often that it became an item on a checklist, a duty. I was still cooking well enough, but it was not bringing me the same joy. I was making dishes I had made before, several times for some. I knew exactly what I had to do, how long it would take, and I couldn’t get to the finish fast enough. I found comfort in the ability to fit cooking and eating into a schedule, and “improving” a recipe had come to mean saving time.
I didn’t understand, at first, that something was missing. I began to look at new, exotic, potentially exciting foods and flavor profiles. I thought, there has to be something out there I don’t know about yet that will awake my passion and make me want to cook from the heart again.
I planned and held a small dinner party. The pleasure of eating, conversations, and the bonding only eating a meal together can bring were not totally lost, but by the end of that evening, I knew something had changed. It wasn’t apparent when the change occurred. But my relationship with cooking was different.
Then, COVID hit. The world spun slowly. Convenience was no longer necessary. And introspection was unavoidable. I began to replay the entire relationship over in my head. I wasn’t looking for “the moment” things changed or a different understanding of the relationship. It felt more like reminiscing, an epitaph, like something I love had become mundane.
It is a sublime experience to have a meal where great food is the focus, that you go into with expectations of incredible food and have them exceeded, where the pleasure of eating consumes you, and where even those who know little about cooking and food preparation have no choice but to show reverence for the food. I thought how rewarding it would have been to be a part of preparing the few meals from my lifetime that were like this. Sure, I wanted to possess the skills and artistry that it took to imagine and prepare such a meal, but there seemed to be more to it than that.
As I thought about what it could be, my mind whisked me away to the prep kitchen for one of these meals (though I hadn’t actually prepared it) . . . It was like a scene from a movie. I was breaking down vegetables, chopping herbs, butchering, tying, roasting, boiling, steaming, stirring, and, for a moment, I felt the romance again. There I was, in a bustling kitchen in my mind, embracing the act, the process, and, for a moment, it felt like the world stopped. It was liberating. I had let go of everything else. I was cooking, just cooking.
As one might expect, it was a fancy, four-course meal in a fancy restaurant. However, as my mind continued to wander, I was taken to a similar experience at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum. It was dinner at a friend’s Mexican family’s house for tacos. There were more different types of food on the table than any four-course meal, and everything was made from scratch. The food was incredible, a carnitas taco completely changed my perspective on what a taco was, but that’s a story for another date. There were no pretensions, but the food commanded reverence, even from the family.
As the wandering ended and reality set in, I thought about what had been missing. It was me. I was going through the processes physically, but I was living in my own mind, not reality.
I had become so used to the anxiety of deadlines that I didn’t realize that it was present at every waking hour. I was being dangled through life by my schedules. Time, in the abstract, had become everything and the only thing that could compel me to action. I was remaining productive, but I wasn’t living the actual moments. When I was cooking, it was like I was not present. I had gone from relishing in my time cooking, the full sensory experience, to thinking and planning the entire time and practically ignoring my senses.
It is like going on vacation with a strict itinerary. It’s easy to plan and schedule leisure, but you can’t make it happen. So, the next time I was to cook, I would set an alarm, think about nothing else, focus on my senses, and enjoy the process—allow it to happen. I figured it out. . . . or so I thought.
I began creating a meal in my mind. I blocked off a Sunday afternoon and enjoyed preparing it. It felt satisfying.
My wife was on her way home, and I was ready to plate the meal. And something happened. I got butterflies in my stomach. I was giddy. I was so excited by the thought of her being surprised by the scent of a kitchen full of Italian food (her favorite) and the love in her eyes when she would see the food and take her first bites. This was it, cooking’s great reward. When we take time and great care to prepare a meal, and it brings someone pleasure, that is a cook’s fulfillment. This is why I love to cook.
The Pleasure of Cooking For Others
Eating great food is one of life’s simple pleasures, but cooking great food is a material pleasure. Like a fine art, it takes great skill, creativity, and care, and, ultimately, its pay off is the pleasure that comes from knowing that your cooking has given someone other than you pleasure. In this way, cooking is a selfless act. “Your” pleasure is why those who have committed themselves to a growing, positive, long-term relationship with cooking do what they do.
The trouble with this is that even the best of chefs, who know they know great food, cook professionally, and hold themselves to the highest standards, rarely get to see this payoff. If you show me a cook who cooks, plates, and expedites like she/he was trying to impress the queen and who incessantly asks servers how guests reacted to the food or “did they like it?’, and I’ll show you someone who loves what they do and who understands that this is cooking’s great reward.
After almost a year of varying COVID restrictions on the restaurant business, there are still plenty of cooks out there throwing it down so we can get pleasure from eating the food they prepare. Let’s use this Valentine’s Day to let them know that their work is not in vain.
To all of you food lovers out there, on this very COVID Valentine’s Day, eat great food. And, if the food is delicious enough to think about randomly and pine for when you can’t get it, if its sight, smell, and taste are so enrapturing you are snapped to the present moment, even if it made the time you spent together better; let those who prepared it know! For a cook who loves what they do, this is vindication. On the holiday that’s all about love and pleasure, remember that cooks love what they do because it gives you pleasure. Happy Valentine’s Day.
At-Home Carnitas Mexican Tacos
For the carnitas
1 whole bone-in pork
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 real sugar 12 oz. Coca-Cola
8 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
For the red sauce
2 lb roma tomato
1 lb sweet onion
1 can chipotle in adobo
1 tbsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp granulated onion
½ tbsp salt
Prepare the carnitas
1. Trim off the fat cap of the pork. Cut the bone out, removing as much meat as possible, and slit the middle of the two pieces of meat on the top of the bone and place it exposed side down on top of the fat cap.
2. Next, cut the remaining meat into baseball-sized pieces and press the meat evenly into the bottom of a large stockpot.
3. Add cinnamon stick, bay leaves and soda. Shake the pot around a bit to allow the cola to touch as much of the meat as possible. Then, add the sweetened condensed milk, cover, and place on medium-high heat for 3.5-4 hours, until the meat on top is tender enough to pull with a spoon.
4. Strain the meat, place it on a pan and salt to taste (approx. 1.5 Tbsp.), and stir. Cover and let cool. Once cool stir thoroughly and refrigerate until you’re ready to make tacos.
Prepare the red sauce
1. Split and roast the onion (without peeling) for 30 minutes. Add tomato for the last 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
2. Peel onion, combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Chill.
Bringing it all together
It’s taco time!
1. Heat a griddle to medium-high. Fill a shallow bowl with canola oil.
2. Before placing tortillas on the griddle, dip them into the oil so that a 1-inch ring around the outside tortilla gets coated, and grill them until lightly toasted on both sides.
3. Put some of the carnitas on the griddle and press until flat like a patty. Allow it to brown and crisp up on the bottom (roughly, 3 min.), give it a flip, chop it up, allow it to warm through.
4. Place carnitas on the tortilla. Add onion, cilantro, lime, and red sauce. Enjoy!