Cooking (for Sherry)

by Jeff Oaks

What is the difference between cooking and baking? The internet says baking is a kind of cooking, the way frying, grilling, broiling, and presumably crockpotting also are specific forms of a larger activity. I ask the question because I am a fair baker of things but I never call myself a cook. It reminds me of those folks I know who will happily call themselves poets but not writers. The latter term seems to require a level of knowledge that is enormous. I’ll never master the cookbook I depend on, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I can’t even memorize the ten pages I use so regularly I could find them blindfolded, because of the warp and splatter on the pages. I have to open up the recipe every time and follow it blindly.

I have known real cooks, people who understood the chemistry of cooking, who could invent fantastic meals minutes after looking in the refrigerator, who seemed to have the knack. A couple of them have tried to teach me some basic maneuvers like first sautéing crushed garlic or diced onion in olive oil as a way to build layers of taste in a soup, say, but I never seem to remember to do it myself. My mother’s mother was the kind of natural cook who could take the sand in an hourglass, the oil in a crankcase, some burned coffee, and a cough drop and create a schwarzwälder kirschtorte.

My mother, who was a fair to middling cook (as she admitted many times), made sure that when I went to college I could cook at least at a basic level, could boil water, make hardboiled eggs, open a can of soup, fry hamburgers, bake chicken, make shortbread and chocolate chip cookies. Over the years I’ve learned how to make potato and chicken soups from scratch, bake a mean coffee cake, and a few other pretty simple things that I love to eat. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to prefer plates of things: slices of mozzarella with slices of Roma tomatoes with slices of apples or pears. I love constructing salads out of greens, assorted vegetables, walnuts, cranberries, and a dash of Pecorino Romano. If there’s an advantage to not feeling like I was a good cook, it’s been that I’ve been drawn toward raw food. A plate of this kind of food is also easy to prepare and requires fewer pots and pans to clean up afterward. But is assembling food like this a subset of cooking?

For all of this, I am a great admirer of anyone who can cook. Everything about cooking impresses me. It makes me, I should add, a terrific guest at any table, the kind who is without any snobbery, is grateful to be given any food at all, and who will gladly go back for seconds. I am also really handy to have around if you’re testing a recipe and need someone to make mistakes disappear.

I see friends of mine who regularly post photos of the things they make, the lavender and orange marmalade scones, the grilled corn and fish enchiladas, a richly golden Italian Wedding soup. I always think to myself, that looks so good, why don’t I make that? Sometimes I write them for the recipe. If it has more than five or six ingredients, I’m done before I begin. If it requires I let something sit or rise or marinate or chill, I’m out. If it takes more than two hours, I’m high tailing it out of there. I’m not patient enough for the process of cooking. Like writing fiction, it seems to requires more faith in my limited abilities than I have. And to have to look at some expensive thing I’ve turned to charcoal is more than I can bear. There aren’t enough people who can stop themselves from ruining things as it is.