Read the excerpt below from Bumping Into God in the Kitchen
Cooks, Not Chefs
On a shelf above the stove in my kitchen is a collection of about twenty-five cookbooks. Some are ornate coffee table books. Others are ordinary and functional. Some contain quite complex recipes, and others are obviously geared for the novice. Some specialize in single-pot dishes, while others require all the equipment I have in my kitchen and a lot more besides. A good number of these cookbooks, to no one’s surprise, are filled with Italian recipes. I confess that while I page through them occasionally to get an idea or find a solution to a problem, I have rarely followed a recipe completely from beginning to end. That is just not my style.
Sometimes this can prove to be disastrous. Substituting Tabasco for paprika (same color) and cinnamon for nutmeg (I’m hung up on the color thing) and using bananas instead of apples (no excuse here), I created a chicken dish that went beyond interesting to inedible. The idea was to turn the original recipe, with its Danube flair, into more of a Caribbean dish. I quickly learned that some foods don’t go together even though they sound as if they could.
I don’t know why people say that men make the best chefs. Besides being a blatantly sexist comment, it presupposes that everyone who cooks for others aspires to the title of chef. Not me. I much prefer to be called a cook. And the best cooks I know are women. I think this is because women find it easier to express their emotions, and that expression comes out quite often in their cooking. That’s why Italian men can be such good cooks too. They also share so much of themselves in the process of cooking for others: their love of family and God, their need to nurture and heal, and so much more. Let me give you some examples.
One of the best soccer players I ever coached when I taught at Quigley came with his family to Chicago from Poland in the 1980s. His mother had a PhD and was bringing up three sons. She cried when she stepped into a supermarket in the States for the first time, because of all the variety—no longer would she be limited to whatever a state-run store happened to have in stock on a particular day. Now she would have the opportunity to express her love in creative ways that had been impossible before.
My friends Ann and Jim are another example. Both were from New York City—he was as Italian as a pepper and egg sandwich during Lent, and she, with her red hair and quick smile, was forever the radiant Irish lass. They fell in love, married, and brought up a family. Ann became an excellent Italian cook. Some would say she did it out of self-preservation. But I know Ann. She did it out of love for Jim and her family. Even today, her family gathers on Wednesday evenings for pasta. And although Jim has died, his presence is still clearly felt. The family helps Ann cook the meal now. I have been just one of many guests who have become part of the family around their table.
A similar story could be told about my aunt Ola, a war bride from Australia who learned Italian recipes from my uncle Frank’s family to add to her own baking skills. Her table was always set with love and her meals served with stories and laughter. Uncle Frank was a great cook in his own right. I remember him standing in the backyard in his apron, grinning from ear to ear as he grilled a turkey on a warm Sunday afternoon.
Chefs work with exacting recipes. But cooks work from the heart. They know instinctively when a little more spice is needed and when to hold back on it a bit. Cooks are not good at writing down their recipes. After all, how much is “a pinch or two” really? It comes down to feel and taste rather than design or science.
I have learned this lesson many times. Once, when I was cooking an eight-course dinner for six parishioners who had won the meal in a silent auction, I tried to cook a batch of my mother’s tasty egg balls. Instead of turning out golden, light, and fluffy, they were brown and soggy and heavy. When I asked her what I had done wrong, she asked me if I had remembered to use the baking powder? I had not. I asked her how much I should use the next time, and she smiled at me and said, “You’ll know.” So the next time I tried to conjure up Mom’s egg balls, I put in three or four heaping tablespoons of baking powder. Subtlety is not one of my strengths, in life or in cooking.
The first spoonful of batter I put into the hot oil quickly expanded to a football-sized egg ball that could have made it into The Guinness Book of Records. Clearly the batter would need a little adjusting before I got it right.
The best way to learn a cook’s recipe is to watch the cook. This is what my brothers and I did; we watched Mom. Now when we get together we continue to prepare and eat many of her dishes. Not only do we remember the ingredients and the techniques, but we also recall many family memories at each gathering.
Jesus gave us a way to recall and to share all that he felt for us when he broke bread and told us to do this in his memory, and we have been doing it with very few changes for more than two thousand years. Cooks, good cooks, provide us with a similar way to remember one another.