Happy In the Kitchen

A few years ago, I lived through a disastrous home renovation project. It brought mostly heartache and regret and, in the end, left me with a home that still needed extensive renovation to repair the mistakes that had been made.

Once these mistakes were corrected, order was finally restored, or so I thought, until I glanced at the kitchen ceiling and noticed a haphazard configuration of lights; it was an arrangement so illogical that it became an ongoing reminder of our chaos, heartache, and misguided investment. I was stuck with bitter feelings until, one day, one of my children glanced upward and said, “Look, we have a smiley face on our ceiling!”

That moment–that new way of looking at a situation that had, by then, become familiar–transformed the lights into an orderly, artistic arrangement. And so on that day I learned, and I mean really learned, the importance of outlook. I look up now and see a smiley face, and even when I strain to see chaos it simply isn’t there.

In the same way, when it comes to cooking happily and with a joyful acceptance of the task, outlook may be the largest hurdle any of us will need to leap.

Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

Seen anew, nearly everything in the kitchen can bring delight–from bowls of fresh produce, to piles of clean dish towels, to a set of well-stocked pantry shelves. Take a look around your own kitchen and ask yourself how it makes you feel. Does it relax you or leave you feeling tense? It’s an important question to consider because one way to keep cooking front and center in your life is to make sure your kitchen is exactly the kind of place in which you like to spend time.

In my own kitchen, I feel connected to nearly all that surrounds me, which may be why the work and the setting rarely tire me. I know many of the farmers who grow my food; I also know the man who made my wooden spoons, and the potter who crafted my mixing bowls and mugs. The dishes on my table belonged to my grandmother, as did many of my serving bowls and platters. My impulse to spend time in the kitchen has been nurtured by these ingredients and tools, all of which have a history. Feeling connected in this way makes it easier to care. Knowing where it all came from makes the kitchen interesting; and then, of course, there is the cooking itself.

Once you master a set of basics, the process of cooking is predictable and outcomes are mostly consistent. The time and care you invest generally correlate with the results you achieve. These are results you can measure, unlike the effects of a day’s worth of other work–parenting, for example–whose rewards and gratifications can be delayed months or even years.

Another aspect to cooking I appreciate is that the kitchen is not only about production and output. When I open myself to possibility it can be so much more, because while I cook I can let my mind wander and figure things out, if not all of the time, then surely some of the time. So as I’m cooking, I am moving myself forward in life. When I am chopping vegetables, I am also really dreaming up ideas and sorting out challenges. When I invite my children into the process, I may be working out a conflict from earlier in the day, or helping a child who’s had a rough go find success in a well peeled carrot or a lightly whipped cream. It may look like we’re chopping and mixing, dicing and stirring, but on a deeper level we’re weaving and reweaving the delicate strands of our relationship.

There’s an elegance to all this, to cooking alone or together and well, that can make time spent in the kitchen satisfying and worthwhile. Cooking also opens the door to rituals that are themselves a comfort and that pattern our days at home: a cup of tea in the morning, birthday meals, Friday night dinner or Sunday brunch. The seasons of our lives and, if we are parents, our years spent raising children are enlivened and fortified by food, and the kitchen is where we bring many of our hopes for these years to life.

The kitchen is, finally, the place where we grant wishes. “If it’s a cake you want, then a cake you shall have!” In its own special way, time spent in the kitchen bestows upon cooks the power of magic.

Favorite Summer Cake

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul