I am currently sitting in my girlfriend’s living room while she plays piano.
Me: “Hun, I’m three days late on a blog entry. What should I write about?”
Em: “Weren’t you talking earlier about eating and dining culture? Write something about that?”
Me: “That’s ALL I write about though- I need something else!”
Em: “How about you? Write about your roots and whatever.”
I knew I was dating her for a reason, ladies and gents.
There is wisdom and warning in the classic saying, “Write what you know.” It reminds the writer that there are always ideas, and that one should always be able to write about their chosen topic knowledgeably and responsibly. The caveat, however, is that only writing about what you know discourages you from researching and learning more.
How does this connect to food?
Simply, and I will illustrate with a thought exercise.
Sit back and think a moment about some of your favorite memories. Moments that made you feel warm and loved- or maybe ones that made you feel invigorated and alive.
Recall every detail of those moments that you can. Every single sensation- touch, taste, smell, sound, vision.
The two that will come to you most readily and rapidly will be taste and smell.
When I do this, I can almost immediately recall the taste of my grandmother’s matzah ball soup and her corn pudding. I can quickly recall the smell of the whiskey and beer my friends and I had on a wild pub crawl through Manchester, New Hampshire late one night. (I also recall the aftermath, less fondly.)
These moments stay with us, and we carry them our entire lives. Writers carry the inspirations and lessons of every book they ever read. Painters and photographers carry the same from every picture and all their favorite painters. In a way, we all have a sort of gallery in our minds, where the exhibits are memories and the library is full of ideas and inspirations.
A chef’s gallery is full of food. Every table they ever sat at, every dish they were ever served, every restaurant, cafe, diner, and bar they’ve sat in- they can pull from that gallery quickly and vividly. They can pull from it and create.
The food writer Molly Witzenberg put it very well when she wrote:
“When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.”
In my personal gallery, I have my mother’s kitchen, and the smells of family dinners with my grandmother. I have every fine dining experience that was ever afforded to me. Whenever I am called upon to make a new dessert, I immediately fall back on those memories, so I might modify the saying to be “Bake what you know, and bake what you love.”
Just like the original saying though, there is a caveat.
If you want to cook well, you must first learn to eat well. Seek out and sample strange new things whenever you can- a culinarian has no place being a picky eater. If anything, get picky about quality. Life is too short to eat at McDonalds and the local diner every day.
If you want to make amazing new things, do your homework, and expand your gallery.
Stay curious all and, of course,