Mind Over Matter

If you already think that plein air painting is painting a scene in the outdoors while outdoors, then you can skip this post.

“The First Few Moments” 24”x18” plein air oil. Painted on location over the course of three days.

“The First Few Moments” 24”x18” plein air oil. Painted on location over the course of three days.

At first look, it would seem that the answer to the question “What is plein air?” would be as obvious as the answer to the question “What is cooking?” but it is not so obvious to everyone. In fact, there seems to be some confusion about it. But let’s put the plein air question aside for a moment and ask “what is cooking?”. Perhaps the answer to this question will provide a clue to answering our previous question.

So, isn’t “cooking” preparing food for a meal? Cooking can involve a complicated process of choosing and preparing fresh, canned, or dried ingredients, chopping, boiling, blanching, frying, seasoning and placing the final mix onto a plate or in a bowl for consumption at the table or on the go. Cooking is also opening a can and heating it…or is it? Let’s say we prepare two simple meals in two different manners. We will be having a simple meal, a bowl of chili, and we will prepare each meal differently in order to understand which method involves cooking. To do this we will prepare two bowls of chili, one prepared in one manner and the other in an alternative manner. Then we will ask the question “Which meal was cooked by the preparer?” In other words, which manner of preparation involved cooking on the part of the preparer?

A can of silly chili

A can of silly chili

Chili Contestant #1

A recipe was found and generally followed, in which we used dry beans soaked overnight and rinsed the next day, thrown into a pot on the stove and brought to a boil.

Added to the pot were a variety of spices and other fresh ingredients, such as sautéed chopped onions and diced tomatoes. All of this was simmered for hours and served hot with crackers, and a sprinkle of chopped green onions and cilantro on top. A sliced lime was squeezed over it all and the chili was served with a cold drink.

Chili Contestant #2

In the cupboard we found a can of chili that was reaching its expiration date but still good. We were starving. This kind of can has a pull top so we didn’t need to use the can opener. We scooped it out into our bowl and popped it into the microwave for a bit and served it with some soda crackers and a cola.

The Winner

In both of these cases we have a bowl of chili for a meal. One bowl was created by cooking, the other was not. Which one involved cooking by the preparer? No doubt, there will be no agreement at all on this point, for some will define cooking as opening a can and others will be appalled at the concept. While opening a can of some ingredient needed in a recipe may be part of cooking, it feels like the mere act of opening a can and heating the ingredients somehow violates the truth of real cooking. Or, at least, it violates the spirit of cooking, if cooking has a spirit. Cooking is, or can be, more than just throwing something together for the sake of expedience. Certainly there are times when throwing something together is the most sensible thing to do in order to stop the crashing of blood sugar and risking discord between us and our loved ones. However, when you do that, and we all have, do you feel like you’ve cheated your loved one, or even yourself? Maybe. Maybe it’s just great to have the hunger gone. Nothing wrong with that. But cooking is, at its best, an act of love in the sense that one takes care to use the best ingredients to prepare a meal that nurtures the self and others at a very fundamental, even molecular, level. If we have the time, if we are not starving and forced to shove just any old thing in our mouths, don’t we like to have a delicious, nurturing meal? And don’t those of us who truly enjoy cooking also, as part of the whole experience, love to feed the ones we love? Honestly, sometimes microwaving a can of chili is exactly the right thing to do. It is not cooking.

Continue to Part 2 →