Whenever my daily bread becomes a daily bother, I try to turn the negativity around by conjuring the “irie” of an old flame who taught me how to cook.
Barry, or “Barrington” as he was known by his mother, always called his no-nonsense meals a “pot o’ food.” With his distinctive Jamaican accent, he’d rally me to the kitchen and announce it was time to “put on a pot o’ food, mon!” He’d turn up the reggae-Shabba Ranks and Chaka Demus, mostly-sharpen a knife, grab a stock pot, rummage through the fridge and pull together whatever meat, bones, vegetables and spices he could find.
Cultural differences eventually drove us apart. (He thought it was cute how Canadians say “I’m sorry” all the time and I thought it was cute how Jamaicans call a sink a “face basin.” But after about a year, our idiosyncrasies weren’t all that cute anymore.) The great blessing of the relationship, though, was I got to spend a lot of time as Barry’s sous chef.
I still remember many of the things he taught me: how to take things “cool, mon, cool”; the importance of not touching one’s face after handling scotch bonnet peppers; and, most importantly, how to make something out of what seemed like nothing. His cooking was the no-recipe-required, food-snobs-need-not-apply, casual-Caribbean-genius kind, and he imparted to me the joy of that kind of cooking.
These days, as I shuffle my feet begrudgingly from aisle to aisle in the grocery store, wondering what happened to that joy, I’ve come to the realization that it’s actually been stolen from me by the new food culture. I have fallen victim to “The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking,” which is the title of a recent essay in The Atlantic by food writer Elizabeth G. Dunn, who admits, with refreshing candour, to also feeling undone by the “impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects…pretending to be totally reasonable meals,” yet that flaunt “promises of speed and ease”-promises that are often altogether false.
Dunn says, “More of our cookbooks are written by chefs publishing recipes adapted from their restaurants, as opposed to the self-taught home cooks.” This explains why many of today’s recipes include such obscure ingredients. If you’re looking for a chicken with its head cut off-and some pomegranate molasses, ostrich eggs and black garlic for a so-called “easy” side dish-don’t be surprised if you yourself take on the hysterical posture of a chicken with its head cut off.
The truth, according to Dunn, is that promoting cooking based on ancestral wisdom-the truly simple stuff we learned from our mothers and grandmothers-doesn’t sell magazines. This is why the food industry rarely reflects the humble fare most of us grew up with. When’s the last time you saw roasted chicken and peas and a stack of sliced bread in a glossy spread?
As a culture, we are drowning in rising expectations. Luxury abounds in everything, from housing to furniture to clothes to pharmaceuticals. Food is no exception. The risk, as Dunn points out, is the “weight of expectation imposed by our cooking culture,” and billing things as “easy,” when they’re not, “can be crushing.” In my case, preparing healthy, home-cooked meals on a regular basis too often feels pointless. I have succumbed to the cultural undertow that says my best, simple as it is, just isn’t good enough anymore.
Sometimes I think of Barry, my mentor-chef, and wonder how he has weathered this food crisis. I like to imagine that wherever he is today, he’s cooking up a big pot o’ food and doesn’t give a rip about the new food culture or food fetishism in general. I like to picture an anxiety-riddled magazine editor landing on his doorstep, Shabba Ranks blaring from the window, wanting to do a profile story on the ultimate West Indian home-chef. I know what he’d say to her: “Cool, down, mon! Ya got to cool down.”
Whenever I feel paralyzed by the fruitless quest for culinary genius, my remedy of choice is to put on a pot o’ food. I’ve WASP-ified the contents a bit. There are no dumplings, and my people lack the intestinal fortitude for scotch bonnet peppers. I’m not sure its origins would be identifiable as Caribbean, but it still tastes pretty good and best of all: it quiets the monkey brain.
As the pot gets hot, it becomes the daily bread for which I can give thanks and upon which I can meditate about the joy of cooking and the simple abundance of food.