Think of bagpipes. People either are thrilled by them or cover their ears at the sound of the word. You either get it or you don't.
That's the way it is about cooking.
To some poor folks, chopping onions is a chore. They wouldn't think of scouring the Clinton-Bailey Market for the perfect Hubbard squash, scrubbing beets before slow-roasting them, kneading dough, marinating beef for sauerbraten or deboning a chicken. (Sorry for the rugged talk. I didn't mean to get so Eastern European this early in the game.)
For a few of us, though, this kind of thing is pleasant. Well, it's more than pleasant.
When the world is cold, nothing soothes like a kitchen. It's a refuge, a haven. There's something tremendously comforting about the gentle creativity of a basic, age-old art. Plus, in the end, you have something life-affirming to show for your efforts.
Had a hard day? Put a big, heavy pot on the stove. Melt a little butter. Add some chopped onions. Start a soup. (Figure out what kind of soup as you go along. Most begin the same way.)
You've heard of aromatherapy? Forget oils of jasmine and eucalyptus. Oils of olive and canola are what you want. That and a little garlic ease life's stresses better than anything flowery.
In cases of extreme stress, make bread. Banish the bread machine. What you want is the feel of your hands in the warm dough. The feeling that Sarah felt when Abraham told her, "Take this flour, knead it and make rolls." A feeling as old as time.
Honest, cooking makes you feel better. Take it from me.
I took a while to figure this out. I spent a lot of my 20s living with my sister in a West Side apartment with appliances from the Great Depression. You had to light the stove with a match, like Laurel and Hardy.
Somewhere along the line, though, we began to discover the therapy involved with creating, and not just consuming, food. What got us going were big pots of split pea soup, lentil soup, and Himmel und Erde. Himmel und Erde is an old German concoction: boiled and mashed potatoes, apples and turnips, topped with pepper and sour cream and eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Warmth is good. Sour cream is good. Drawn-out cooking is good. It gave us time to sit down, share a pot of tea, enjoy the aromas and unwind from the stresses of our slacker lives.
In the adult working world, you need this comfort even more.
Cooking is the antithesis of the hectic life. To do it right requires imagination, focus and time. I live for chilly Sunday afternoons with nothing on the schedule. I love calling up my mother and/or a few friends, inviting them to dinner, and then barricading myself in the kitchen, listening to Hugo Wolf songs I've heard a hundred times as I get something ready that's going to cook a long, long time.
Hurry is the enemy of good food. But even an hour is enough time to enjoy the art of a good supper. You can do blackened salmon. You can do pasta with tomato sauce, eggplant, mushrooms, whatever. You can fill a skillet with cabbage and spiced apples. You can make potato pancakes.
A few of these dishes might sound hopelessly old-fashioned. But there's something heart-warming about proclaiming oneself the heir to hundreds of years' worth of cooking history.
Cooking therapy goes beyond soothing. It can be empowering, too.
One fall Saturday a few years ago, I made one of my frequent stops at the Broadway Market. The place is always inspiring, with its fresh horseradish, local honey and crowded butcher counters full of oxtails, rabbit, soup chickens and tripe. (There I go again with that Old World talk. Sorry.)
This was back when Dorothy Malczewski, who has since retired, was still behind the counter of Malczewski's Poultry. I told her I was making dinner for my boyfriend, Howard. I eventually married Howard, but we were a relatively new item then.
Dorothy picked up on my hope to impress him, and leaned forward confidingly.
"How about a duck?" she suggested.
I'd never made duck before, but I liked the idea of buying something different. "OK," I said.
She told me what to do. Put an apple inside the duck to soak up the grease; start it at one temperature; reduce it to another. Finally, came the serving instructions. Dorothy smiled at me.
"And," she said in her Polish accent, "you cut the duck in half, and put a whole half on his plate. He will love it."
A whole half! Howard joked that it was an oxymoron. But I was too thrilled by the way Dorothy was appraising me, solemnly, as one artist appraises his successor. You could imagine Schumann appraising Brahms, or Louis Sullivan sizing up Frank Lloyd Wright.
"I can see why he likes you," she said. "You're a good cook."
As I left the market with my duck carefully wrapped in paper, I savored the comfort of being part of an ancient tradition - inheriting the wisdom of centuries of East Side women who knew about food and its magic.
When I learned to love cooking, I was single as the day is long. No boyfriend, no nothing. But I had a house I'd just moved into with a kitchen that, while not opulent by today's soap-stone-and-marble standards, had space to move and work. It also had a stove you didn't have to light with a match.
With my new kitchen freedom, I found myself cooking first with enjoyment, then passion. Making dinner meant relief that awaits you at the end of a work day. I was home. I could listen to music. I could cook.
That was when I discovered the Broadway and the Clinton-Bailey markets. Vegetables were my special revelation. I started a garden. Having grown up on the canned stuff of the '70s, I loved discovering how to buy and cook things fresh. And, because I enjoyed my after-work therapy so much, I wanted to draw it out. No quick stir-fries for me. I'd roast onions with a honey glaze, instead. I'd bake half a turban squash. I love how when you're baking a squash, the whole house smells great - as if you're making a rich dessert.
Like the world's great artists, I am always learning. My friend Guy Boleri, a jazz pianist whom I admire for his Sicilian cooking, has coached me on how to make tripe. We blew the top off the pressure cooker three times, but that's why God invented the smooth-top electric range. And the end justified the means.
I read how a daughter of the late chef Pierre Franey remembers her father's zest for food. "He always awoke thinking about what he'd be cooking and eating that day," she wrote.
I look forward to cooking the way I look forward to playing Beethoven on the piano: It's an art, and I get to practice it, and it reminds me there's something out there bigger than I am. You lose weight when you learn to cook, because you can supervise what goes into your food. You eat sumptuously for very little money (that luxurious duck, at the Broadway Market, will run you just $10 or so). Best of all, you cheer up. Cooking's not only good for your body, but it's good for your soul. Love to cook, and you'll always have something to celebrate.
> Dorothy Malczewski's Roast Duck
Go to the Broadway Market. Look at the fresh ducks in the case at Malczewski's Poultry. Pick out the one you want. Buy it and take it home.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut up an apple and put the slices inside the duck to soak up the grease. Put the duck in a roasting pan and place in the oven. Roast it for half an hour. Take the duck out of the oven and remove the apple slices. This is your opportunity to stuff the duck. (Dorothy Malczewski suggests a wild rice stuffing.)
Turn the oven to 350 degrees. Roast the duck for about another hour, until it's golden brown, and when you stick a skewer into it, the juices run clear.Dorothy suggests serving the duck with potatoes, and a sauce of brandy and apricot jam.