It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)
But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.
I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)
One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.
Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.
This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.
(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)
What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.
I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.
I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)
One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.
And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.