Last week in this space I admitted to lately feeling a bit under the weather when it comes to my creativity.
I was referring mainly to the realms of creativity I encounter in my job – writing, design and illustration. But there has been one area of my life where the creativity hasn’t slowed, but increased, received new life, an area given a dose of vitality. And it’s in an area that I never quite thought of as being creative: Cooking.
While my creative cauldron has been left on the stove overnight with the stew beginning to stick to the bottom, my real-life cauldron is overflowing with culinary inventiveness. There were the grilled meatloaf meatballs: spiced-up ground beef and onion, rolled into 1-inch diameter balls, grilled, then tossed in barbecue sauce. There was the pulled-pork pizza: homemade dough, coated with olive oil and spices, two parts barbecue sauce and one part tomato sauce, smoked fresh mozzarella, caramelized mushrooms and red onions and topped with spicy homemade pulled pork and cilantro. Or, my triumph, the Southwestern chicken shepherd’s pie: a base of cubed marinated grilled chicken, grilled fresh corn and roasted green chiles, blanketed by buttermilk green chile mashed potatoes topped with pepperjack cheese.
I have progressively enjoyed cooking my entire adult life but have witnessed a revival the last few months. Just as it is the one area I am willing to blame for my writing/designing creativity lull, my dreamy, fairy-tale romance over the last four months may be to blame for my wave of creative cooking. I have traded my keyboard for a cutting board, swapped synonyms for spices, less dishing and more dishes.
It’s not so much that I want to impress this wonder woman of mine (though of course I do, c’mon), it’s that I again have someone to cook with and for, someone to share in the spoils. It’s a reminder of the intended and unintended externalities of cooking: The chopping and slicing can be meditative; the wafting, simmering smells can jog memories; and a homemade meal that brings two or more together can be cause for an unspoken union, a bonding grace, a soulful experience where the love and care infused in the food manifests in the table’s conversation and spirit. No wonder it’s inspiring.
My approach to cooking for some time now has been to start with an established recipe to get a sense of ingredients, spice ratios and cooking times and temperatures. Once those are ingrained, it’s time to freestyle. Like in the case of the shepherd’s pie, the creative combinations and alterations take over: meat, vegetables and spices on the bottom, mashed potatoes on top. Let the iterations begin (before the Southwestern shepherd’s pie was Italian shepherd’s pie: tomatoes, onions and green peppers with ground beef mixed with Italian sausage on the bottom). Or sometimes a restaurant’s menu item will challenge me to do better. The pulled-pork pizza was an almost 100 percent ripoff of Steamworks (or is it an homage?). Sorry Steamworks, but I think I have you beat this time.
As I said last week, creativity comes from the union of disparate ideas, concepts, emotions and images, combining them in a way where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts to create a bigger idea and better understanding of the subject matter. This undoubtedly applies to cooking, where disparate ideas and ingredients collide, where you imagine flavors intertwining in ways they never have before.
I will continue to embrace this shot of creativity. As the temperatures and leaves fall and as we slowly migrate indoors for the coming months, I say we let the smells of soups and stews and roasts and breads and the craziest creative casserole your mind can imagine fill our homes. Grab someone you love, clear the table and share.