"A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness."
— Elsa Schiaperelli
"What does cookery mean? It means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe, and of Calypso, and Sheba."
— John Ruskin
"Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."
— Sophia Loren
Let's begin with a memory: I am nine or ten years old, shivering with terror in my bed at night. A violent storm rattles the windows, the lightening sharp and sizzling, thunder a chest–rattling roar in the darkness. Skeletal branches frantically lash the panes. I have read too much Beowulf for my own good, and I am prepared at every blinding flash of lightning for the sight of the hulking monster Grendel. But another sound soon catches my ear. Pots are clanging, cupboard doors are opening and cutlery is chiming. My father is in the kitchen in the middle of the night, cooking a spell to soothe the terrors of the storm. I listen eagerly and there it is — the staccato tattoo of the knife on the chopping block, the soft sizzle of heated oil and at once the house is filled with the pungent reek of garlic. Bedroom doors open, and the rest of the family, as if called, leave their beds and gather in the kitchen to wait out the storm–tossed night while my father cooks.
Outside the storm rages, but inside, in the warmth of the kitchen, my father is committing an act of sorcery on fresh tomatoes. How else to spell away the darkness than to evoke all the ingredients of a sunlit summer's day — the green–gold olive oil, the peppery scent of garden tomatoes, the tart juice of parsley leaves. And garlic, lots of garlic. With drowsy expressions, my mother and brother sit at the table, chins resting on their upturned palms while my cousin, visiting from France, opens a bottle and pours glasses of wine (mine diluted with a little water). My father moves around the kitchen, a wizard carefully arranging the components of a complicated spell, murmuring in a soft voice, throwing ingredients into the pan erupting with curlicues of smoke and a commanding aroma. Watching him, fascinated by the deft movements of his hands, his face nearly invisible in the gathering steam, I can forget the storm outside. When the fat globes of Tomates á la Provençale, their flanks glistening with oil, are spooned at last on my plate, I am aware that the storm has moved on, grudgingly perhaps, for I am sure that if it could, it would have joined us, happy enough to take the bread and soak up oil, herbs, and the golden seeds swimming in the soft pulp of the tomatoes. I lick my fingers and, sleepy once more, return to bed, the oil around my mouth staining the pillowcase.
The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters. They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells — some secret, some written in books annotated with splashes of grease and broth. For years after his death, I was convinced I could take my father's stained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time. From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father's recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime.