Monkeys in the Kitchen, by David Teniers the younger (1610-1690)
Here’s another little piece of the memoir-type book I’ve been working on. It describes a period of anxiety cooking I went through when I was a senior in high school.
Cooking as Teenage Therapy
All of a sudden I just wanted to cook, and that’s all I wanted to do. When I first started my “cooking frenzy” as Mo, my mother, called it, I wasn’t at all interested in the bold and delicious Southern Italian food I’d grown up with, but with an emerging 1970s style of health food. I cooked recipes from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, just published, something I picked up because many of the fragile hippie girls from my school, the ones with straight dirty blond hair, were reading it. What could be in this book that was making these girls so serene? Me serene seemed as likely as me the astronaut, but I bought the book hoping it would fill me with sophistication. I should have known right off this wasn’t going to be a good fit for me.
The food I cooked from this New York Times health book was immediately repugnant to me, but I kept at it. It didn’t occur to me right away to go in any other direction. All those foreign smells, produced by me, wafting from our family kitchen, made me almost gag at times—dusty grains, molasses, carob, dried fruit, oils that smelled like fish, leaden bread studded with rancid seeds and walnuts. But I couldn’t stop turning out huge quantities of those brownish gray breads, cement-textured cookies, and grain dishes held together with a slimy glue.
My production hours were erratic; sometimes I’d be up until four or five in the morning pulling solid loaves from the oven. Food without life. It was a profoundly surreal experience, but yet, at the same time, it was my first encounter with the thrill of losing myself completely to a pursuit. Miraculously, much of my anxiety melted away.
But something was not quite right (or something went “terribly wrong,” as journalists always say when reporting on a freak accident) . Culinarily I was on the wrong path. I loved the chopping and the mixing, and putting food through grinders. And I was very taken with fire; the gas range, the broiler, the long bar matches, Tiki torches, bug candles. I loved the reddish orange and deep blue purple hues that fire gave off.
Gradually, I’d say it took around three months, my disgust with the foreign food I was turning out from the New York Times book became profound and unsustainable, but my desire to cook only grew stronger. The Southern Italian cooking that had surrounded me my entire life began to have a positive pull. I finally woke up. Our family food wasn’t current like the dusty ten-ton oatmeal and pumpkin seed loaves I had been baking (I actually baked about eight of them one day, all dry as a bone and smelling vaguely like mildew); it was just what we ate, every day. I began paying attention to the aromas of our kitchen, the frying pork cutlets or raw red peppers, Mo marinating chicken legs in sliced garlic and lemon wedges, or opening clams over the stove in a winey tomato sauce, or tossing a salad with pungent red wine vinegar and bitter olive oil. I loved the aroma of sautéed zucchini when the edges got a bit burnt and when my mother would then tip it all out of the skillet into a big dish and scatter on fresh basil that she’d tear nonchalantly with her fingers. Dick, my father, cutting up cantaloupes and draping them with prosciutto, or just salting slices of melon and popping them into his mouth. Salty melon. What a concept!