I can count the places I feel most at ease on one hand: behind a book, in a swimming pool, in front of the stove, or across from another person, just one person, when the dialogue is fluid. I used to find solace in front of a piano, but I haven’t played in so long that I’m almost scared to try again. I worry I might decide to quit everything, hole up in the woods somewhere, and focus solely on what I left behind for more dependable distractions, things that could keep me nice and sedated while I held a storm at bay as best I could. This storm had been brewing for years, and eventually it hit shore with such a vengeance, I really did come within an angel’s eyelash of moving to that aforementioned log cabin in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a band of squirrels and birds with which to volley conversation.
The funny thing about innate interests, abilities, or whatever you want to call them, is that they’ll surface eventually. Soon there will be nothing you can do to stop the thoughts of these interests. It feels as though you’ve left something behind. Do you know it? Since a piano is not exactly portable, I have to put these thoughts on a shelf next to those of a working food processor, a few favorite books and photos, and the people I care about who live across an ocean.
When I was thirteen, I started to cook. We had one cookbook in our kitchen, a bright orange Betty Crocker binder with pages that had yellowed with age, yet still managed to look untouched. Betty Crocker was my Julia Child. I looked forward to making dinners from it. A sense of normalcy, of family, came from the act of producing a meal from those pages, even when it was just my brother and me at the table. The book was published in the eighties, I’m almost positive, so you can imagine the sort of dishes that resulted. There was meatloaf, beef stroganoff, tuna noodle casserole, and chicken with cream of mushroom soup. There were canned peas and green beans from a stash in our pantry that always smelled of paper grocery bags. It was the Midwest, it was the nineties, and back then, I thought Betty Crocker was real.
I remember vowing to check off every recipe from the book. I didn’t reach the goal, but I’m sure the binder is still tucked away somewhere in my dad’s house, right along with his mother’s set of mustard-colored pots that still smelled like the inside of her house years after they had been moved. I hope so, anyway.
Lately, while in the kitchen, I’ve begun to lean less on recipes and more on instinct. (Strangely, the kitchen is about the only place where I use a road map). Maybe it’s because we have fewer choices here. You can find much more if you search hard enough, but most of the time, I can do perfectly fine with what’s available at our neighborhood markets. To cook for less than you’d pay to eat out is a challenge in Seoul, but it’s a challenge I like, especially when it comes with a budding self confidence in the kitchen. Before this week, I’d never mixed a sauce for stir fry without a recipe. Correction. Before this week, I’d never mixed a sauce for stir fry without a recipe that didn’t taste like a cup of water from the Dead Sea. Totally salty, without any other distinctive flavors to balance it.
Something happened on Tuesday. I needed a sauce to coat a quick stir fry of mushrooms, cucumber, and red chili pepper. As I whisked a shy drizzle of sesame oil into a base of soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar, all flecked with grated ginger and garlic, I started testing it for the right harmony of salty, sweet, and acidic. I knew what I was looking for, and I knew how to get there.
Last night, it happened again. I put on a soundtrack, and I made dinner. I heated a swirl of olive oil in a pan before adding a minced clove of garlic. After thirty seconds, I added half a red chili pepper, also minced, the leftover stems of a head of broccoli, chopped, and a spot of salt. Is this the beginning of a sofrito, what I’m making? I wondered as a I kept the contents of the pan moving around, frying gently, infusing the oil. (It wasn’t, after some research to confirm, but it did make a nice base to pep up some limp leftover lentils cooked for a soup I’d made earlier in the week).
When the lentils had warmed and reawakened in the pan, I folded in a cup of shredded swiss chard until it was barely softened. The chard curled around the lentils like Brunswick Green ribbons. More salt, some dried cayenne, a squeeze of lemon, and dinner was done. It wasn’t over-the-top delicious, but it was pretty damn good. I washed the dishes and felt a feeling of victory, similar to how I had felt years ago after I’d reshelve the old orange binder. But better, still.