Bakers are meticulous people. They level off cups of flour with the back of a butter knife, they use unsalted butter, they pay attention to whether or not their baking soda is out of date. Cooks are, well... not bakers. These are people that see recipes as friendly suggestions, to be disregarded, changed and adapted. Cooks add stuff until it "looks right" or "feels right" or "tastes right". Cooks are constatly trying to substitute stuff and are surprised when it doesn't turn out quite like they thought it would (for example... tonight's beef stew - dehydrated carrots, not as good as real carrots is all I'm saying.) But some of the time, the changing and fiddling is the birth of a new favorite. Cooks do not like baking because it is rigid and ruley. Bakers do not like to cook because it is uncertain and prone to failure.
I am not a baker, but I do like to cook and am pretty good at it, (I think.) Over the years I have established a few rules that govern my time in the kitchen. I play music when I cook. My favorite is the soundtrack from Chocolat. You should try it. You may or may not want to imagine Johnny Depp sitting at your kitchen table watching you, I do not - when people watch you cook they're bound to have something to say about it, and I already have enough voices in my head. Sorry Johnny. Also, I only cook for people that I like. If I don't like the people that I'm feeding I get a little bitter. I am convinced that my moods are in my food. As you might well imagine, pan seared anger doesn't win the James Beard. (They have a website in case you want to vote for me. 2009, my hands are washed and my fingers are crossed.)
I do not want to give the impression that everything I've ever made has been ... edible. Unfortunately for my husband my culinary journey has been riddled with a few head on collisions with bad judgement. With one word I can induce flashbacks in him that a Vietnam Vet would run from. Just one word - meatloaf. We had not been married very long when I decided that I would impress my husband with my hitherto undiscovered domestic skills. Dinner seemed like a good place to start. I'd helped my dad make meatloaf when I was a girl and I remember that others in my family liked it. (I have always been turned off by the idea of a loaf made from meat, but I did like to mix all the messy ingredients together with my hands, so -) Plus, I knew that I should serve it with a baked potato and some kind of vegetable or fruit. I think I went with Jell-o mixed with fruit cocktail.
I found the recipe that my dad used which was conveniently printed on the side of the Quaker Oats box, and embarked on my meatloaf adventure. Pound of ground beef - check, eggs - check, oats - check, other stuff that presumably belongs in meatloaf- check. I added the stuff and started to mix. Here I need to remind you that "cooks" add stuff until it "looks right" - and what I remember distinctly is that it did not look right. It looked a little runny, in fact, and so to remedy the runnyishness, I thought - "a little more oatmeal". A little more oatmeal turned into a lot more oatmeal and like a science fair project gone terribly awry- the meatloaf (referred to from here on out as the oatloaf) began to grow. Hoping that it would stiffen up in the oven, I scraped it into a pan and put it in at 350 to bake. Meatloaf should bake for and hour, hour and a half tops - my oatloaf? Like 3 hours and still it was... jiggley. Let me tell you people, jiggley is not a word you want associated with many things about you, including your meatloaf.
I eventually gave up on the meatloaf looking any better, pulled it out of the oven, and plated it up. I still remember the look on my poor husband's face when it started to spread across his plate like the title character from a 50s horror flick. If the over-baked potato and identity-conflicted Jell-o could've made a run for it, they would have. And quite frankly my husband should have. In an act of supreme self-sacrifice he picked up the ketchup bottle, emptied it on top of his oatloaf and ate the entire thing without one complaint. (If you're gagging a little right now, I understand).
Our bodies are amazing things. They are a mixture of electrical systems, and hydrolic systems, and chemical systems. Our bodies work even when we don't think about it (usually). For example, our brains release a chemical called oxytocin that is a bonding and love hormone. It is released during birth, and sex, and -when we eat. (You were wondering what the hormone thing had to do with the rest of this post huh?) I credit this hormone with blinding my husband to the perils of a poorly prepared dinner in order to maintain the relationship with his wife. I don't care what Oprah or any of the rest of "them" say - food is love. Sometimes we cook it and sometimes we eat it, and sometimes we pretend to like it to spare the feelings of our skinny 2o year old bride. But always we bring our pants to the table and become a little more a part of someone else's life because of it.