Not to be outdone by aforementioned topics, today’s January 1 twenty-ten (a new year!) post should keep you poised in suspense, electrified by every word. This will most likely happen if you are still chemically enhanced from all those lunches-that-turn-into-dinners accompanied by an small lake’s worth of intoxicating liquid that seem to happen around this time of year.
A couple of nights ago I made a dish that I’m now calling Mafia Stew. The recipe calls it Caponata, but I reckon Mafia Stew is a more descriptive term for this Sicilian dish. When planning my menus (yep, I plan about 4 meals in advance and go shopping just for the stuff I’ll need. If that sounds so smug you just want to whack me one (keeping up with the Mafia/Sicilian theme of this paragraph), this is the “after” which follows on from a “before” where I used to wave my hands around like a windmill at around 5.30pm, looking blank-eyed in my pantry and fridge and wondering what on earth I could possibly make out of the stuff lurking in them.
I mean, what can you do with an onion, some thin spaghetti and olive oil? I would inwardly wail, lost for ideas (as it turns out, there’s lots you can do with said ingredients). That has all changed as you’ll see…. let’s get back to the Mafia Stew…).
The recipe called for red wine vinegar. An ingredient that up to that point I hadn’t known existed and certainly didn’t reside in my cupboard. Instead of ignoring the words “red” and “wine” and just slopping in whatever vinegar I happened to have lurking in the back of my pantry, possibly sealed shut from lack of use (name-brand plain ole vinegar, probably), I bought the proper red wine vinegar and used it in the making of Mafia Stew. I also used the correct measurements, too – instead of guessing at how much 3 tablespoons are (two wrists shakes, surely?), I did something crazy – I measured it. Long story short (or is it too late for that?), the dish was scrumptious. People who ate it even said so.
I’ve never been one much to cook a meal one might reasonably call scrumptious. You might call it quite nice, or a little bit tasty, or it-saved-me-from-starving. Nobody but anyone who had been gastronomically abused would have waxed lyrical about the meals I created. But of late, and by that I mean that last year or so, I’ve gotten into this whole cooking thing. It seems late to be starting, I know, and if this was a 1950s sitcom, I’d be the harmless but stare-inducing eccentric aunt from Out Of Town whose visit temporarily unsettles the household by gushing over the appearance of a nourishing meal involving more than 3 ingredients appearing on the table every night. I’d probably be named Boadecia or Dardinella and wear clothing that would normally be reserved for upholstering.
Back to the Present. I’ve always been interested in the eating end of the food spectrum, but the preparation end has never really called me. My sister in law Rosalee inspired me when they lived with us for a couple of months late 2007 – she’d plan the meals, make sure all ingredients were present and accounted for, and start preparing early enough so that the meal was ready when — gasp! – people were hungry. Her table-laying was also lovely – simple but pleasing to the eye. In all, she put thought and care into the evening meals she created, and it helped make our house feel like a home (thank you Rosie!).
Fast forward to now…..I find myself actually wanting to prepare interesting and mouthwatering dishes. I’m interested in the activity (we couldn’t yet call it an art) of cooking. My day is book-ended by the time I spend chopping and stirring (most of the time, this happens in the kitchen too). It also has this unexpected calming effect on me. The long commute from my home office, where all kinds of stimulating if not agitating activities have occurred throughout the day, to the kitchen takes all of 15 seconds and from there I am lulled into a relaxed state through end-of-day meal composition.
What a difference a decade makes. When I lived on my own in Sydney, from 1994 to 1999, my usual evening meals consisted of these appetising and complicated dishes: 2 minute noodles with grated cheese; boiled eggs; toast; cereal. Sometimes I’d get fancy and have the boiled eggs with the toast.
Cooking isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last 10-15 years, but it’s kind of like a marker on the journey, somehow indicating how my attention has shifted from this to that, where I am now spending my energy and time, and what now interests and animates me. 10 years ago, my life was completely different to how it is now. I had just finished working for Deloitte, an identity-shifting experience of seismic proportions. I’d just gotten married, an identity-shifting experience of seismic proportions (oh, I just used that expression, didn’t I?). We’d just bought and renovated our first apartment together, a financial- and fingernail-shifting experience of nimbus proportions. I’d moved on from 2-minute noodles to more complex dishes such as spaghetti bolognaise.
And….??? what has this to do with the 12 month challenge to shop my closet?, I hear you ask. Excellent question…. The 1.5hrs its taken me to compose this post thus far, I’ve been pondering it myself (which originally was going to include something about rick rack, so you’ll just have to wait for that one).
What I think all this culinary cultivation has to do with the 12 month challenge is it’s about the creative place I am finding myself in. I’m pulled by the desire, the call to make something – to design, to compose, to come up with, to build, to bring into being…. in short: to create. I never thought of myself as creative, but now I do. What I also know is that to deny creativity and the act of creating is to shut yourself off from something important and profound in life. When you create you move from surviving to thriving, from existing to living.
Creation turns life from a black and white photograph into a technicolour movie. It’s a life force. Creating meals is a part of the creative jigsaw for me. And so is shopping my closet and this challenge. They are both pieces of the puzzle, the overall shape of which is a life creatively lived.
We probably have a lot in common, I’ll guess. One of them might be that you weren’t confident that I’d be able to forge a cogent link between cooking and the 12 month challenge. Right?