I don’t cook very often. I never use recipes. When inclined to cook or when I have company, I tend to look in the cupboards and see what is available. Then I make up a sauce for the fish or the chicken, and another for the vegetables. Most cooking events don’t end in disaster, though occasionally I do wish I hadn’t used so much garlic or curry.
I taught two young teenagers in another country to cook this way: look in the refrigerator. What appeals? Look in the spice cabinet. What goes together? What might be surprising? We would mix spices together with oils, creams or butter (maybe all three), as grand experiments, do a little taste testing, modify, and then sauté or roast as desired. Their parents were trusting, long-suffering, or delighted, depending on our choices and their palates. I sometimes can’t believe these friends let me use their kitchen to teach their children how to cook this way.
An aside: Recipe aficionados and the whole cookbook industry frown upon such methods; after all, why reinvent the wheel when someone else prescribes things exactly so? Perhaps there is a personality type difference at play here, but to me, it’s so much more fun to create something from what is available rather than go to the store and fulfill the list.
The two teenagers are grown adults now. They are cupboard cooks. Of course, we cupboard cooks all must keep cupboards semi-stocked with basic supplies that include cream, lemons, curry, garlic, pepper, oils of different sorts, any other spices one likes, and perhaps a little parmesan, just in case. Then add your main course and your side foods. Over time, certain tastes become favorites and others discarded. Once in a while, throw in a new spice or base. What the teens and I learned in the midst of our kitchen immersions is the extraordinary fun of a cupboard not well-stocked – then the creativity really has to flow!
Such experimentation with what is already in supply translates to other parts of life as well. Teaching creativity is indeed an immersive experience, and what better way than by rustling through cupboards and creating something new from what is already present? It seems to me that such a way of cooking is a good way of being ourselves in the world. Sometimes we live the tried-and-true mixtures, sometimes we throw in a new spice or base just to see what comes of it. Creative experimentation with our lives expands us into better and better selves, the selves God is calling forth in us. Some experiments will be failures and that combination of spices need not be tried again. Some cause allergic reactions, or worse, and are not good for us. Some are so good we want to repeat them until we make them even better. Some are just weird. All are worth the experience of putting something new together and trying.
The older I get, the easier it seems for me to become routinized and comfort-seeking. Some of this state stems from body aches and joint groans, but some simply is a different energy in life. However, I am reminded when I do cook that life really is seeing what is available or what presents itself, followed by what I can make of it as a good result. My own spiritual journey wakes me up over and over as I experiment here and there even when I’m not sure the outcome is going to be positive. It’s in the experimenting that I learn the best way forward. I am convinced that God gives us each lots of ingredients in the cupboard and says, “Go for it! See what happens! I’d be happy to sit at your table and let you know if this experiment should be repeated or not!”
By the way, curry does wonderful things to all foods whether used as a subtle under-flavor or all-out mouth-heater. Try it. Enjoy the experiment. Yum.
Rev. Dr. Lisa Withrow is professor of leadership studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, East Ohio Conference.