If you do a lot of cooking and you’re a bit of a moody bastard like I am, then you might have experienced occasional sub-par results when cooking in a bad mood. You followed the recipe perfectly, if there was one. Or you were revisiting an old favorite that you’ve mustered up so many times that it seemed completely infallible. Utterly un-eff-up-able.
And yet something was just not right from the very beginning of the cook. Perhaps it was indecision in the supermarket. But no, it couldn’t be; so many of those zenned out, list-less shopping missions have led to amazing meals. Was it general fatigue, laziness? I couldn’t blame it all on that because throwing something in an oven or a pressure cooker takes way less effort than actually going out and getting the ingredients. So then what was it? Was I cooking for people I wanted to impress and got flustered? Could be. There are times that even the best of cooks screw up otherwise no-brainer feasts for friends or fam. Yet usually, those on the receiving end are much less critical of the final product than the cook. Not to mention, it could be easily argued that food made for others, regardless of the final result, was created with good intentions. Wait, what?
It was a few weeks ago, but still ripe in my mind. Not ripe in a juicy, crispy watermelon sense. But more like a disgusting little fresh poodle turd left on the sidewalk. It was cold and wet outside. A bone penetrating 10 degree Celsius night that only sub-tropical dwellers can truly appreciate. Indoors colder than out; damp. I was about to make one of my favorite dishes, sort of my own twist on an Alfredo or Carbonara. Whatever, it was pasta with creamy, cheesy sauce that I add a bunch of chipotle puree to. And bacon. And sometimes chicken. On this night, craving the fatty comfort and richness to ease my woes, in the damp drafty cement cold storage I call home, I figured I’d be in Alfredo or whatever town in about 30 or so minutes. I had my Netflix cued up, sweatpant and matching shirt and toque. I was ready.
Thing is, the day had closely resembled a steaming pile of horse shit. Not so much because of the weather and not because of work; even though neither helped. It was something else. Akin to anger, angst and yearning all roiling around in a dented aluminum can, reserved for dead ciggies. Nothing had really happened though to make me feel this way. And it wasn’t as if I was watching the black clouds come in over yon prairie to blow the farm to smithereens. But there was something. A feeling. Something I’ve come to know as the ‘The Nameless Dread’. One part sad/mad mixed into four parts anxiety, folded into about 6 parts of wet and bruised heartbreak without the break. It wasn’t even the booze blues, which can produce a very similar shit cake as the one I was braising around in with head and heart.
So there I was. Pasta in the boiling water. Rotini spirals to catch and hold all that creamy gooey sauce when all’s done. Bacon in the pan, sizzling away on a low-ish heat to save all that salty, heavenly grease which will soon caress and caramelize my onions, garlic, and chilies. Fast forward a bit and all seems to be going as planned. Pasta is done. It’s fine. I think. I’ve reintroduced the bacon to the onion, garlic and chilies. Heavy cream is in, bubbling ever so gently in slow motion. Sharp pecorino cheese falling over the young sauce like Christmas flurries. Some salt, coarsely cracked black pepper. Everything smells and looks just as it has the other badillion times I’ve made this comfort – fuck the whole world out there – dish. Pasta is now mixing in with all the sauce. I like to mix it all together because it’s all going to go in the fridge that way anyway, and I’m planning on eating it cold tomorrow. That’s how I like it.
Now I’m finally sitting down with my hot bowl of love and I take a bite. Wrong. WTF. How could this be? Everything is off. The pasta has turned to a mushy, mealy pulp. The sauce, almost impossibly, seems to have no salt in it whatsoever–despite the bacon (salty) and the cheese (saltier). The chipotle and fresh chilies have somehow created an acrid, almost pepper spray thing, not that I even know how that tastes. The garlic has done nothing at all. And oh… the cream. Lumpy, curdling gobs of broken sauce. What diarrhea would look like if one was to eat a gallon of wallpaper paste. What the hell had happened?
Well it’s interesting.
And while just an opinion, it seems to be one commonly shared among people who cook regularly. Our emotions and intentions go into the food we make. That’s the Bhagavad Gita speaking, not me. But countless chefs also share this sort of Jedi, Qi Gong notion that just as essential as our physical energy is to creating good food, so is our internal energy. It’s like the subconscious finds it seethy little way out into the world no matter what the medium. So in the end what I got was mealy, acidic, bland, curdled goop. My mind-state made visual…and inedible. I’d have done better for myself had I simply pasted the whole pot of it on the wall and called it arts… The Nameless Dread.
To clarify, and this part is a little tough. This is where I totally contradict myself (as I am wont to do), because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cooking in a bad mood, in my experience at least. Quite the opposite, in fact. Cooking is often meditative and mindful. The act of doing things in the moment that truly need your attention, lest the whole dish be botched. But there’s something about cooking in that muddled head space that, again in my experience, has always seemed to end in a super gross way. Something akin to getting out of the wrong side of the bed. Or the weird frenetic energy some experience as the moon waxes full. The ticklish itch. The almost identical sound of laughter and crying, heard from a distance. I don’t know, but it sure is something. And it’s on those nights, as I’m coming to learn, that I should just surrender and go out and get a couple of red hots.