The Joylessness of Cooking – The New Yorker

Chess Engine

In theory, I love to cook. Ive been reminding myself of this lately, repeating it almost like a mantra, humming the percussive, iambic rhythm of the phrase while I clatter around in the cabinets in search of whatever skillet is inevitably at the very bottom of a teetering stack of pans, or ram the blade of a knife through the stalks of yet another head of celery, or fling a handful of salt resentfully at a wholly blameless chicken. In theory, I love to cook.

To cook, as a home cook, isnt just to cookits to plan, to shop, to store, to prep, to combine, to heat, to serve. If I dont love all those things, all the time, I can at least reliably expect a jolt of pleasure from one or two: the bland labor of chopping onion is paid for, more or less, by the rich smell of the stew as it simmers. But what I love most about cooking (in theory) is that its a puzzle to be solved. In its best form, cooking is a practice measured not in individual dishes but in days and even weeksa strategic navigation of ingredients, expiration dates, uses and reuses, variety and sameness. Im no good at chess, but in my mind the rush of realizing that the jumble of aging ingredients piled up in your fridge composes exactly whats needed to make a beautiful dinner has to be, on some level, how Kasparov felt when he realized he was about to sock it to Topalov.

In March, when it began to seem likely that the coronavirus pandemic would lead to a serious bunker-style hiding out, I felt the expected fear and anger but also, I admit, a certain thrill at the idea of a major shift in the rules of the kitchen game. How do you make it work when you dont know how often youll be able to grocery-shop? In early February, I had spoken, for a story, to a couple in Shunde, China, who had somehow been composing culinary sestinas in the midst of a strict lockdown, with minimal access to fresh ingredients; following their lead, in the weeks before New York City issued its own social-distancing mandates, I started growing my own herbs, bought jars in which to put up pickles, scoured cookbooks for recipes that used nothing but pantry ingredients and yet wouldnt feel like military rations. We would be eating paella, I informed my husband, and cassoulet, and miso soup with homemade tofu, and fresh pasta, and Nioise salads without the lettuce. We might be prisoners in our apartment, but at least wed eat like kings.

Of course, thats not how things went down. It became clear, almost right away, that, besides a few precarious weeks of toilet-paper shortages, any worries of major supply-chain disruptions were unfounded. If anything, by April, home cooks (at least, those whose incomes hadnt evaporated when the nation began its economic domino-fall) had access to more and better ingredients than weve ever had before: as restaurants were forced into state- and city-imposed shutdowns, their suppliers started scrambling to sell their now-homeless inventory at retail, and often by mail. Steaks once destined for steak houses, chickens of rare and beautiful breeds, exquisite olive oils and vinegars by the gallon, gorgeous cheeses, freshly milled flours, a dazzling cornucopia of specialty fruits and vegetablesthe sorts of rare and sensitive specimens that risk-averse grocery stores would never consider making space forwere suddenly available, and at shockingly attainable prices. During the past seven or eight months, my refrigerator has been stocked with the raw materials of fantasy; you could dive into my spice drawer like Scrooge McDuck into his swimming pool of doubloons. Ive stir-fried Sichuan-style cumin lamb, made slow-roasted pernil asado, fired up pots of oil for a farmers-market fritto misto; I spent what felt like the summer juicing limes and slicing fish for an endless parade of tart, light-as-air ceviches; Ive made hundreds of dishes for hundreds of meals. And I am so bored. I am so tired. In theory, I love to cook. But I am so, so sick of cooking.

I take some comfort in knowing that Im not at all alone in this feeling. I hate cooking now, and I hate that I hate cooking, my friend Sarah confessed to me recently, after months of making and eating meals by herself while her partner works a schedule that, thanks to COVID-19, means hes never home for mealtimes. A recent Quartz report points to increased sales of prepared foods as evidence that COVID-related kitchen fatigue is a bona-fide trend. The critic Tejal Rao wrote recently, in the Times, about culinary burnout: I dont think Im supposed to admit this here in the Food section, but when I think about cooking, Im filled with dread. My social-media feeds are full of individuals regarding their own culinary ennui with something adjacent to awe. I dont know what to make for school lunch. or for dinner. or for breakfast. i no longer know what i like to eat, what i know how to cook, what is healthy, what the children enjoy, or even what is actually edible, the novelist Rumaan Alam tweeted recently. Others yearn for a sci-fi future where dinner is distributed in pellet form, or own up to subsisting on candy bars, or grudgingly admit to, finally, understanding the allure of zero-effort meal replacements like Soylent and nutritional drinks such as Carnation Breakfast Essentials products. I keep thinking about a post from earlier in the fall (now deleted, but seared forever in my screenshots folder, and on my heart), which made the rounds among my friends: gotten to the point with eating where i basically just want a nutrient slurry injected into me, the Twitter user wrote.

Feelings of emptiness are normal, even expected, in times of stress and uncertainty. (Stress and uncertainty being at best a tiptoeingly diplomatic way to describe the experience of the past year in America, with its million and a half dysregulations, both ambient and immediate.) But isnt cooking supposed to be a balm for this sort of thing? Much of the happiness I used to find in cookingeven when cooking became, sort of, my jobwas rooted in how tangible it was, in both labor and outcome. Simple, repetitive, semi-creative tasks like kneading dough and chopping dill are supposed to thaw us when were frozen with existential dread, to ground us in the tactile world, to give us a sense of power and control over the small universe of the cutting board and the stovetop.This makes sense, I know its true, and I guess I remember living it, and believing it. But lately it feels awfully far away. I dont want to re-center myself by being mindful while I peel a head of garlic for the hundred-and-thirtieth day in a row; I want to lose track of myself entirely by playing seventeen straight hours of a battle-strategy video game in which I get to be a military-school professor with magical powers and green hair.

Much has been made, in these months of the pandemic, of the wisdom to be found in How to Cook a Wolf, M.F.K. Fishers great guide, from 1942, to cooking and provisioning during the extreme shortages of the Second World War. Ive always loved this sharp, snarky little book, particularly the way Fisher walks a tightrope between buck-up bonhomie and stark misanthropy. She doesnt pretend that circumstances arent dismal well beyond the contents of her pantrythe wolf of the title is fatigue and anxiety as much as its hunger. But she makes a good case, in chapters like How to Be Cheerful Through Starving and How to Rise Up Like New Bread, for finding the fun in misery. Here are some suggestions which sound touched with a kind of sordid whimsy until you try them, she says, to introduce a list of alternative fuel sources culled from books dating back as far as the Victorian era. Then they really work, and make you feel noble and brave at the same time.

From the vantage point of abundance, this sentiment is inspiring; in an era of need and shortage, its timeless and practical. For me, right now, it makes me want to hurl a cabbage at the wall. (Ive had a cabbage taking up space in my fridge for over a month now; this use for it seems as good as any.) Behind Fishers exhortations was an engine of higher purpose: the rationing of that era was a cost of fuelling a war, the sacrifices on the home front motivated by a narrative of patriotism and righteousness. The COVID-19 pandemic is sort of a war, but only in the most absurd and nihilistic way: the economy hasnt been diverted to wartime productionits just in crisis. The people trying to make do with limited resources are in that position because they dont have jobs or adequate (if any) governmental relief, not because all the butter is earmarked for our boys overseas taking down the Nazis. I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and wars fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment, Fisher writes, beautifully, and to my great irritation. My enjoyment is anything but ever-increasing.

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The Joylessness of Cooking - The New Yorker

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