Sunday, October 10, 2010

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

This week the entire NYTimes Magazine was devoted to "Eating Together." As I read about the various communal dining experiences highlighted - Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, top-rated potluck recipes, group cooking in cob ovens Berkeley - I realized that the Times had finally caught on to one of the biggest lessons I learned after I left New York: there are never too many cooks in the kitchen.

When I first arrived in Seattle I was surprised by how many potluck meals I was invited to attend. Insecure about my cooking skills I often opted to bring a bottle of wine instead. But the invitations continued. Some weekends I was invited to several, so that I found myself in the kitchen, preparing the equivalent of an entire meal in order to be a guest at other peoples' homes. This seemed outrageous to me at the time. In New York I would have thought it terribly rude to be invited to someone's home and asked to bring a dish. Seattle was different.

Two years later I regularly host large potluck meals and am consistently amazed at the variety of ingredients and flavors and courses that my friends come together to create. Without having to police my guestlist, I never have too many quinoa dishes or too few desserts or not enough wine. If I were to measure my success at building community here by the quality of my potlucks, I would be quite impressed. And in fact, I am. The only greater satisfaction comes from preparing and cooking a meal with others, something I could have never done in New York if for no other reason than that the kitchens are too small. Because a meal cooked with others is, I believe, the most gratifying kind.

My first experience is communal cooking was in Whole Foods Production class during my first year at Bastyr. Sharing a kitchen station with three classmates, we divided up the weekly tasks of chopping, mincing, sauteeing, braising and searing. We then gathered around a table to enjoy the meal together, commenting on the flavors and colors, noting what was surprising, what could be done differently next time. We would share the cleaning responsibilities and part ways, off to class or work. But something about that time spent cooking together, swapping stories and ideas, forged a closeness that would be hard to create otherwise. I've had the fortune of taking several cooking classes since then and have found that experience replicated each time. That's why Michael Pollan's description in today's magazine strongly resonated with me.
It is a long, loquacious and delicious dinner, made more special by the fact that virtually everyone at the table had a hand in preparing it. I feel as if I’ve already learned a lot cooking with this crew, especially about working together and trading ideas. Each dish might have a lead cook, but other cooks will contribute a technique or flavoring — dozens of tasting spoons have been passed around — so that the final product becomes something more or less new, even to its author. Already I’m better acquainted with everyone in the easy way that seems to happen when people work together, especially at tasks, like kitchen prep, that leave plenty of mental space for talking. The flow of conversation has been desultory, drifting from summer plans to the World Cup (playing earlier in the living room), kids, other meals, the work at hand. But it is the working together at less-than-all-consuming tasks that seems to be forging our motley crew (far flung in age and background) into something that feels like a community. Sometimes getting to know people is easier done side by side than it is face to face.

This is nothing new. Having read and seen Like Water for Chocolate I recognized that this existed in other cultures, but American kitchens seemed different. Just a few years ago I remember reading a very different piece in the New York Times, one that described the alpha cook. Based on restaurant models, the term referred to the person who gives the orders, who bullies around the others in the kitchen. A restaurant owner and alpha chef interviewed in the piece stated that "Couples cooking together is probably the second leading cause of divorce next to home renovations.”

Communal cooking is different. It requires flexibility and room for individual autonomy. It is something I have grown to love and live on a regular basis. I knew I wanted to date my now boyfriend after we spent a night baking together. For my birthday I spontaneously invited some friends to bring the random and rather scant contents of their fridges over after a yoga class and we somehow managed to create a magnificent spread that amazed us all. I still have the opportunity to cook meals with classmates at school, but have expanded to working with volunteers for Teen Feed and with homeless youth at Street Youth Ministries as well.

I am just like everyone else, often too tired to prepare a meal and would more likely grab a quick snack. I find that I am more inclined to cook with others. Dividing up the work the process goes faster, and with some conversation or music the experience is more enjoyable. And when there are multiple chefs in the kitchen I am certain that the food tastes better too.


  1. I thought Thriller was when you knew....

  2. Nicely put...I guess, where kitchens are concerned, size matters!

  3. I thought it was the norm to invite you to a potluck and request that you bring 3 lasagnas