5 min read

An Act of Transformation

When the menu changes
An Act of Transformation
Photo by Karina Vorozheeva / Unsplash

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All cooking is transformative.

I have a friend who disagrees with me on this point. I’ve written about her cooking style before—she likes to showcase excellent ingredients, presenting them in the least-altered form possible to highlight the qualities that they already contain. She tends to say that my cooking is transformative in a way hers isn’t, because of the way I like to deconstruct ingredients and layer flavors. I tend to say that her cooking is just as transformative as mine is, because even an untouched ingredient changes when it is presented as a treasure.

To call cooking an act of transformation doesn’t necessarily mean one is revolutionizing ingredients. One of the most famous desserts in the world is a platter of figs, presented unaltered in their perfection. When we cook, the food is not necessarily the thing that’s changing. Transformation is happening—even if it’s not happening in the direction you think it is.

Many of us approach the act of cooking as though we’re entering a moment of authority. We seek mastery. We talk about meals in terms of dominance, triumph, accomplishment. We think of ourselves as controlling the ingredients and inflicting our will on them to make them into something better than what they can be on their own. I frequently find myself inhabiting this perspective, especially when I’m cooking something I’m unfamiliar with. I want to take ownership of it. I want to feel like I have power over the outcome of the meal. But the truth is that cooking is a relationship between the chef and the ingredients.

The other day I made a berry tart with black raspberries from my garden. The berries presented themselves to me as they were, and I undertook an effort to transform them. I tossed them in cardamom-vanilla sugar and left them to macerate for a while—this is a process by which sugar draws moisture out of fruit, and the fruit then accepts dissolved sugar. Everything becomes softer, sweeter, more intensely flavored. But after two hours, the berries somehow hadn’t released any juice. The structure of these fresh-picked berries was resistant to passive maceration. I had to listen to them to understand that they needed some agitation, and then some weight rested on top of them, before they could participate in the way I was asking them to. The tart became a conversation between me and the berries, and in the process, I became someone capable of participating in that conversation.

The act of cooking taught me how to better listen to the fruit. It’s a skill I didn’t have before, and it’s one I’ll take with me into every other recipe I make. To cook well—to be in relationship well—one must accept that control is less useful than understanding.

Cooking has transformed me by allowing me to find layers of complexity and nuance within myself. Because of my experiences with food, I have become someone who seeks new depths of knowledge in all things, who thrives in the pursuit of fresh understanding, who wants to know and delight in the truth of things. I stuff paper-thin slices of fennel beneath buttered chicken skin; I seek out new words for the way that I am, and I turn the words over to look at what is hiding beneath; I turn eggs and sugar into custard; I mine every instant for the layers of joyful intricate complexity I know to be there, waiting for whoever might seek them. I listen to the world. I listen to myself.

Transformation can look like becoming, too. A perfectly roasted peach by itself is not un-peached; it reveals its essential nature, becoming a more resonant version of what it has always been. When my friend and I met, she was interested in exploring food in ways that transformed it into something new. She was invested in the self as an unconscious, intricate performance. Her life back then was coated in a thick sauce that, as delicious and well-balanced as it was, overpowered the intrinsic flavor of her true and perfect self. She was an amazing cook. She was an amazing person. She had yet to become who she is now.

There are recipes that teach us patience, recipes that teach us attentiveness, recipes that teach us a sense of urgency. Learning to bake bread taught me about anger; learning to make toffee taught me about self-forgiveness. Food gives us the truth of itself, and in this, it shows us what we are capable of becoming.

I have watched my friend fall in love with the process of baking a whole cod in a layer of salt; I have watched her fall in love with the accompanying sesame leaves; I have watched her fall in love with the person she deeply and wonderfully is. She cooks the way she is, and she is the way she cooks. These days she presents herself like a platter of perfect figs. She highlights the incredible material she has to work with, and the people who deserve to have her in their life are delighted by this on its own terms.

When we are asked for things we do not already have, we have the capacity to transform, to become greater versions of ourselves, to find what’s needed and offer it to the recipes that would otherwise defeat us. We might try to force growth and wind up flaming out; we might hold ourselves back and refuse to yield to demands for deeper understanding, truer expression, more profound acceptance. Some of us fight the idea of transformation so hard that we end up lost in the battle for a sense of control, unable to connect with the joy of creating and becoming.

But if we let it in, I truly think that this is one of the greatest joys of cooking: Just as we can see ingredients transform while we are cooking with them, we can see ourselves change in response to what a recipe asks of us. Cooking shows us where we’re hiding and where we’re thriving. It changes us within ten minutes, an hour, a day. It allows us to become who we are capable of being, whether finding that person is a matter of adding layers on or stripping them away.

In cooking, we become. And there’s no greater transformation I can imagine than that.

Coming Up This Month

  • DongWon’s Jjigae
    DongWon Song, an agent at The Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, shares a base recipe for jjigae, a delicious piping-hot Korean stew.
    Their essay on learning the Korean concept of the taste of coolness, a sensation that comes with balance in a meal, will be in your inboxes on July 12.
  • Josh’s Nanny’s Pfeffernusse
    Josh Storey, a writer of science fiction and fantasy, shares a recipe for pfeffernusse, a German cookie that—when made wrong—reveals secrets.
    His essay on learning to love deviation will be in your inboxes on July 19.

If you’re a paying subscriber, come by the Stone Soup Supper Club for early access to this month’s recipes, our weekly chat, and more community! I can’t wait to find out how you’re doing.

If you’d like to own the Personal Canons Cookbook ebook, which collects all these essays and recipes in easy-to-reference, clickable format—plus loads of bonus recipes from me!—join the Stone Soup Supper Club. The ebook is free for subscribers, who will get the download link in their inboxes in the first Supper Club email of 2024!