Cooking from the heart

The message of food is immediate, says Anu Lakhan; a meal always conveys the emotions of the person who’s prepared it. So always cook from the heart


My mother used to tell me a story about a young woman whose chief domestic duty was cooking for her innumerable brothers. As is often the case with fictitious young men, these worked diligently at a variety of trades vaguely connected with agriculture, and were deeply devoted to their sister. With no hint of impropriety on any of their parts, they appeared caring and contented in spite of great poverty and the obvious constraints of their humble residence.

One day, as the young lady of the house prepared the evening meal, she cut her hand, and a single drop of blood fell into, I believe, a vegetable stew of some kind. Though appalled at this horrible breach in even lowly-hovel health standards, she was a practical girl, and knew that a blood-free stew was not going to appear out of nowhere. She stirred well, and held her tongue.

She kept her silence, though the brothers proclaimed it the finest meal they had ever eaten, and even years later, when all their lives had taken a turn for the better, and each one could trace the change in his fortune to the night of that stew.

A somewhat grim little tale, but a good lesson. The sister’s blood — the essence of her — is what made the difference. And what she was to them was love and hope and comfort. (We will ignore, in our immediate discussion, the obvious kitchen safety sub-plot.)

To be sure, neither myself nor the Ministry of Health would encourage self-mutilation or the use of suspect ingredients, but there is much to be said for the underlying philosophy. Whatever we feel or want or mean is conveyed in what we cook.

The message of food is immediate, visceral, like music. It requires none of the code-breaking or analysis associated with the other arts. And what food conveys is entirely unintentional and honest. An angry person cannot cook something light and whimsical. For all his skill and technique, a clinical chef cannot cook something that tastes like home.

It is unfortunate that art, culture, and religion conspire to convince us that food serves only two functions: nourishment and social cohesion. Whatever your problem, prevailing wisdom would have you fix it with a meal. Hate your family: Sunday lunch. Ignored by the love of your life: feed him. Neighbours cold and distant: ply them with baked goods.

This is, of course, absurd.

Indigestion is the usual result of my sharing food with those who cause me emotional suffering. Once, in (or in spite of) great rage, I made burgers for a Loved One. They were inedible. I ate them because I would not give an inch to the argument. My food, like my position, was to be defended at all cost. The Loved One punished me by consuming this atrocity. Neither of us backing down from certain poison, we ate on. We were ill.

I’m not denying food’s pivotal role in holding societies together. But if you can believe that food made with love and care will nourish and nurture, then the opposite must also be true. In Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, diners are at the mercy of the cook’s emotional state. When Tita serves quail cooked in the roses given to her by her love, the scene goes from languidly sensual to smouldering (quite literally, when her sister sets the bathroom on fire from the heat of her body). But when she is heartbroken, her feast brings everyone to tears and nausea.

This is what makes this book one of the great artistic tributes to food: it admits to its full character. Food, like magic, carries in it the essential ingredients of our emotions.
A friend of mine says that when her mother was cooking, no one in a bad mood was allowed into the kitchen. If my mother had applied such a rule, she’d have done herself out of the little help she managed to get.

As to how or why it happens, I am unable to offer any insight. After all, it seems quite reasonable to assume that a joiner, for instance, could make a table that is useful, strong, and elegant for someone he cares little for. But perhaps the art of joinery is subtle enough to conceal the ill-will of the maker in the fine grain of the wood, or to obscure it with careful polishing.

Perhaps it is the immediacy with which we appreciate food that is the difference. Once the decision to dine is taken, it moves swiftly from a thing we apprehend through the various senses to a thing that is ingested, becoming part of us even as we continue the repast. When other artists speak of their craft as being part of them, they speak, at best, metaphorically (mostly just dishonestly). It is only with food that this is literal: cooking will brook no insincerity.

Anyone who thinks love cannot be measured is obviously not in possession of a recipe for a rich, silky crème caramel.

I myself once tried to declare my deep love for someone with a light pumpkin and lobster soup, fragrant and golden. I was certain my import could not be misconstrued. As it simmered, the scent wafted through the house as only light, beautiful things can waft: a languid, voluptuous feeling like sleep settled over everything. It was nothing short of a love letter written in bay leaves and rosemary on a bright saffron page. Whether he missed the point or chose to ignore it (two of the more common fates suffered by love letters), I cannot say. When, by the second helping, he failed to fall into my arms, I despaired and sent him away without dessert.

PUMPKIN LOBSTER SOUP (for two)


1/2 pound pumpkin
handful of lobster chunks
1 potato
3 or 4 bay leaves
1 level tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 small onion
cream
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, minced
sea salt
black pepper
fresh chives (the tiny green ones if possible)
Angostura bitters
Vivaldi guitar concertos, a nice collection of Beatles love songs, or Juan Luis Guerra’s Areito

This soup is not a thing to be made in silence. If you did, God knows what you’d be thinking. The recipe cannot be blamed for any mishaps as a result of being left to your own thoughts. If Vivaldi or the Beatles or Juan Luis Guerra can offer you nothing in the way of inspiration, you might want to reconsider making this soup — ever.

Boil the pumpkin and potato with a bit of salt until tender. Mash them together. Sauté the onion, chopped fine; add some more butter and toss in the mashed ingredients. Blend the whole lot and return to a low heat. Season with salt and pepper; add bitters, rosemary, and bay leaves, and stir in a cup and a half of water.

The lobster chunks should be roughly chopped, smallish. Sauté them quickly with the garlic and salt and pepper to taste, and add to the soup. Let it simmer as slowly as possible. When the scent begins to exude its soporific charm, it’s time to remove from the heat, add a dollop of cream and mix it in well, and serve. Garnish with finely chopped chives.