It used to be that cooking dinner was my favorite part of the day.
This is back when I was at my first office job. From 9 to 5:30 I wired myself to a workstation in a seated position—about the most frustrating setup I’ve ever been forced to adopt. All that sitting is definitely bad for your body, and screens can be pretty bad for your eyes, too. But it was more than that: the monotony of gray walls and sterile air and flat surfaces starved me of sensory stimulation.
Naturally, when I clocked out I craved the complete opposite. I wanted to stand! To move! To soak in the sight of bright colors and to let scent-laden steam wash up over my face!
As soon as I got home I headed to the kitchen to cook.
Washing and chopping a rainbow of vegetables invigorated me. My hands went chill under running tap water. The air above the stovetop rippled with radiated heat, then flooded with hissing billows of steam. I felt flecks of minced garlic stick to my fingertips and tasted their sharpness when I licked them off. I stirred. I hummed.
When I cooked I felt like a real live human again.
But that was years ago, and lately I realized I haven’t been cooking as much; instead of craving the kitchen, I tend to crave the instant gratification of Thai takeout. What changed? (Okay, yes, I moved to a neighborhood with a fantastic Thai place—but there’s got to be more to it than that.)
Well, nowadays my creative juices are flowing full time: I spend my days writing. That might seem like another desk job, but there’s a certain physicality to the way I stand at my raised table and draw ideas across the page. Within my mind I’m actively conjuring sensations and sentiments; as E.L. Doctorow says, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” After a good writing session I feel as though I’m drenched in rain or in whatever sensations I’ve been evoking in my work.
And I’m not plugged into any company systems whose clocks monitor me. If I need a break, I go for a long walk between Seattle neighborhoods. Ahhh.
When dinnertime rolls around I’m no longer physically stiff and mentally stifled. The kitchen doesn’t call to me the way it used to with its promise of invigorating sensations. If anything, I’m already exhausted by how thoroughly real and live and human I feel.
Trust me, I’m not complaining.
But as I chopsticked some panang curry to my mouth the other night I felt a sudden nostalgia for the simple joy of cooking as my creative outlet. Writing can feel so serious, so cultured and consequential. Roasting vegetables and sautéing meat never seemed daunting in that way—it was just fun.
After all, whatever you whip up in the kitchen will be gone within the hour, reduced to a few sauce-smeared dishes and a lingering taste. That’s it. Whatever you made has no further significance in the world.
Maybe at first glance that sounds like a letdown, but when you think about it, knowing that your culinary creations are just going to get chewed up one way or another is wonderfully freeing. You can experiment with new recipes and it doesn’t matter how badly you botch a batch. Even if you scorch something down to carbon and fill the apartment with smoke… you’ll live. You can always start fresh next time.
Actually, you have to start fresh next time.
Every dinner you prepare is inherently valuable: it will fill your belly and nourish you. But every dinner you prepare is also just practice for every other dinner in the days to come. And that’s okay.
In fact, I realized I want the old fun and freedom of cooking to spill over into how I write. Sure, I made the decision to treat writing as a serious job—but that doesn’t make it any less the playful passion it’s always been for me.
I’d like to treat each day of wordsmithing as a chance to experiment with new ingredients. Some works of prose will have real zing or zest while others will turn out bland. Either way, creating them nourished me for a day. Even if a writing project goes down in flames, I can just air out my workspace and laugh it off. I’ll start fresh next time.
I do hope to get back into cooking a bit more, but that’s fine if it’s no longer the creative outlet I crave. Writing is my new favorite part of the day. And like I said, I’m not complaining.
Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.
New York Times food critic
I hope you're lucky enough to have a creative outlet, and maybe even lucky enough to practice it full time as your profession—as long as you don't end up taking it too seriously. What wakes you up and makes you feel like a real live human? Wax poetic in the comments below or on one of my social media pages...