In Praise of the Cook

by Midori Snyder

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Vertunumus"

Let’s begin with a memory: I am nine or ten years old, shivering with terror in my bed at night. A violent storm rattles the windows, the lightening sharp and sizzling, thunder a chest–rattling roar in the darkness. Skeletal branches frantically lash the panes.I have read too much Beowulf for my own good, and I am prepared at every blinding flash of lightning for the sight of the hulking monster Grendel. But another sound soon catches my ear. Pots are clanging, cupboard doors are opening and cutlery is chiming. My father is in the kitchen in the middle of the night, cooking a spell to soothe the terrors of the storm.I listen eagerly and there it is — the staccato tattoo of the knife on the chopping block, the soft sizzle of heated oil and at once the house is filled with the pungent reek of garlic. Bedroom doors open, and the rest of the family, as if called, leave their beds and gather in the kitchen to wait out the storm–tossed night while my father cooks.

Outside the storm rages, but inside, in the warmth of the kitchen, my father is committing an act of sorcery on fresh tomatoes. How else to spell away the darkness than to evoke all the ingredients of a sunlit summer’s day — the green–gold olive oil, the peppery scent of garden tomatoes, the tart juice of parsley leaves. And garlic, lots of garlic. With drowsy expressions, my mother and brother sit at the table, chins resting on their upturned palms while my cousin, visiting from France, opens a bottle and pours glasses of wine (mine diluted with a little water).My father moves around the kitchen, a wizard carefully arranging the components of a complicated spell, murmuring in a soft voice, throwing ingredients into the pan erupting with curlicues of smoke and a commanding aroma. Watching him, fascinated by the deft movements of his hands, his face nearly invisible in the gathering steam, I can forget the storm outside. When the fat globes of Tomates á la Provençale, their flanks glistening with oil, are spooned at last on my plate, I am aware that the storm has moved on, grudgingly perhaps, for I am sure that if it could, it would have joined us, happy enough to take the bread and soak up oil, herbs, and the golden seeds swimming in the soft pulp of the tomatoes. I lick my fingers and, sleepy once more, return to bed, the oil around my mouth staining the pillowcase.

"The Cook

"The Cook"

The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters. They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells — some secret, some written in books annotated with splashes of grease and broth. For years after his death, I was convinced I could take my father’s stained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time.From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father’s recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime.

"Medieval Kitchen"

Perhaps because the cook, like other ambiguous archetypes, functions as catalyst of transformation, myths and fairy tales are filled with all manner of cooks, some creatively heroic and others deeply villainous. And it is the villains that come first to mind because their concept of cooking provokes such a shocking contrast to our usual expectations. For them, cooking is an act of violence and destruction. It is not about nurturing, but revenge, obliteration and murder. There are the giants whose cooking skills lean toward the grinding of "his bones to make my bread." There are the jealous step–mothers pulling their recipes from black magic cook books to make poisoned apples. And there are the truly terrifying, the cannibal cooks, who in their jealous rages extract hearts and livers from their step–children to make stewswhich they feed to an unsuspecting parent. The step–mother of "The Juniper Tree" makes a soup of the body of her step–son, seasoned by the salty tears of his traumatized sister who has witnessed the crime. In Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, the deposed Roman general Titus makes a towering meat pie from the bodies of the Goth Queen Tamora’s sons and serves it to her in revenge for her sons’ brutal rape and mutilation of his daughter.

Among the Xhosa of South Africa we find tales of the Zim, man–eating monsters that dine regularly on dishes of human flesh, sometimes even their own children. One story tells of Zim parents whose child is born half sweet, half sour. The parents promptly devour the sweet side, leaving their child a fast–moving, one–legged creature with a voracious appetite, hoping to regain its full body in the consumption of meat. Tricksters in African narratives often use cooking to outwit these formidable monsters. One clever trickster convinces the Cannibal grandmother that he is too stupid to figure out how to get into the pot. Frustrated, she demonstrates by climbing into the seasoned water.Trickster slams on the lid and promptly turns up the heat. It is not enough that he cooks the old monster in her own broth, but he disguises himself as the grandmother, and when her grandchildren show up for the midday meal, he ladles out her bits and pieces to them. What follows is a hilarious question and answer dialogue as the grandchildren become suspicious. "But this looks like my grandmother’s eye," one says looking at the contents of her spoon. "And this looks like my grandmother’s foot," whines the other. "Eat your food," the Trickster grandmother orders, and they do.