Perched on a stool, a much smaller me folds her legs beneath her. Leaning over the kitchen sink, the stainless steel basin reaches the tops of her arms; suds reach her elbows as she pulls another Idaho potato from the left, soapy side, scrubs it, and plops into into the rinse water. One after another. A ritual of cleaning.
When I was small, maybe seven, I was allowed to help with the preparation of the family meal. I was in charge of washing vegetables and peeling garlic. I have no idea how much longer it took, waiting for the youngest daughter to meticulously inspect each spud's eye for dirt. I have no idea, because I never thought others were waiting. They had work to do, too. And I was helping.
My tasks in the kitchen were small, but they felt big, important. The slicing, marinating, cooking of food can be laborious and defeating—when it's done by the same person, one person, everyday. It becomes a chore rather than a privilege or even, dare I say, a delight. Being grateful for one's food can often slip from the periphery, but having enough to eat at all is a gift. The documentary, A Place at the Table, addresses the food insecurity of fifty million Americans, let alone the food shortage of other countries. (Learn more about the film here.) I frequently find that the appreciation of preparing one's meal is increased by knowing where it comes from, being closer to the source, as well as knowing what's in the food you're preparing. When you have a food allergy or intolerance, nothing feels better than knowing that the food you're cooking is okay for you to eat, knowing it won't hurt you. And the bonus is when you're able to share that experience of putting energy into the preparation of the food. That's where delight comes in. Sharing the preparation adds to the meal something more than "slaving away over a hot stove." It adds ritual; and this is as old as we are.
In the mid-twentieth century, scientists excavated charcoal-crusted hearths in the the Czech Republic that dated to roughly 25,000-30,000 years ago. The evidence surrounding the hearth indicated a repeated use of these early fireplaces and was consistent with cooking. But even this finding is somewhat recent when compared to a discovery of researchers in South Africa. In 2012, the team announced the discovery of a hearth that dated to a million years ago, complete with animal bones. The phenomenon of assembling around a fire and preparing communal food is ancient and carries rich implications. Cooking indicates community.
Cooking is an act of creation; by destroying the natural state of the ingredients, we create something new. Creativity is rewarding, whether you're following a recipe line-by-line (like me) or whipping up something from your imagination (like my father). And a shared creative experience facilitates bonding. For a seven year old whose opinion is not as practiced and skills are not as advanced as the rest of the adults', it helps her feel like she belongs.