A while ago my friend Nafisa lent me Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. I was particularly taken by an essay by Jane Kramer called ‘The Reporter’s Kitchen.’ She describes exactly the connection between cooking and writing: how baking biscuits or, more usually in my case, bread can be fitted into the writing of an essay. How following recipes follows the same process of unfolding as constructing an argument. How cooking food can both distract from difficult writing, as well as address the causes of writers’ block:
[I] tried madeleines again, and discovered that, for me, they were just another cookie – which is to say, not the kind of cookie that belonged in the ritual that for years has kept me commuting between my study and my stove, stirring or beating or chopping or sifting my way through false starts and strained transitions and sticky sentences.
During times of stress, she turns both to writing and to cooking. I tend to do the same, but this week I’ve not been able to write. I was mugged in the Johannesburg CBD on Friday evening, and, at almost exactly the same time the following Monday, a man drove into the back of my car as I was on my way home.
I’ve hesitated about mentioning these events because they seem to confirm some of the worst stereotypes about Johannesburg, and, although annoying and stress making, they’re by far not the most important things that have happened in the past few weeks.
Instead of writing, I have spent quite a lot of time in my kitchen. I have a weakness for epic cooking, and over the weekend we made David Chang’s version of bo ssam, or Korean slow-roasted pork, a process which involved marinating, slow roasting, and long resting.
800g tinned plum tomatoes
1 onion, peeled and halved
5 Tblsp butter
salt and pepper
1. Place all the ingredients in a wide, deep saucepan. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every fifteen or so, until thick and glossy. Discard the onion halves.
2. I like to stir some torn-up basil through this. Serve with spaghetti.
On Wednesday, having seen the doctor about my sore neck, I made granola (loosely based on this recipe), the basic proportions of which are:
3 cups oats
½ cup desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
½ cup brazil nuts, chopped
½ cup whole, raw almonds
2 Tblsp vegetable oil
6 Tblsp honey
½ cup dried fruit
1. Place all the dry ingredients, except the fruit, into a large bowl and stir to combine.
2. Heat together the oil and honey and pour over the oats mixture. Mix thoroughly, and bake in a roasting tin for about twenty minutes at 150°C, stirring halfway. I vary this recipe with flaked coconut, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and maple syrup instead of honey.
I have wondered, though, if I’ve been at the receiving end of some kind of elaborate cosmic joke,* and if it would be worth devoting myself to the preparation of lucky food.
So many societies eat coin-shaped and sweet things at New Year, for instance: from rice cake soup in Korea to lentil dishes in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern states of the US. Pomegranates in the Mediterranean world, cabbage and pigs in Germany, and long noodles in Japan symbolise prosperity and longevity. We stir Christmas pudding batter for good luck.
We can understand the social meanings of food particularly well through religion – the taboos which surround pork or beef, for example – and ritual. When Catholic monks insisted upon wheat communion wafers in colonial Mexico they did so because they associated maize with the ‘uncivilisation’ of the indigenous people to whom they evangelised. Ingesting maize wafers would have implied some kind of acceptance – a swallowing – of the customs and traditions of pre-colonial central America.
The significance of ‘lucky’ foods is that they are part of rituals: that they mark particular moments of time; that they call for pause and contemplation. In a way, they slow down time – as does cooking. I don’t want to make any grand claims for the healing powers of cooking, but being forced to focus and to work systematically and repetitively, offers one way out of panic and anxiety.
And, anyway, I can write now.
* Not really.