Recently, I synched my Apple TV with my Flickr account so that when the screensaver comes on, all of my pictures on there–over 28,000–dance across the screen. And, wouldn’t you know it, most of those pictures are pictures of food. In fact, when I open my iPhoto and try to find pictures of me and Craig or me and my family, I have to fight my way through a tangled web of food imagery; portraits of dinners and lunches and breakfasts past. Recently, though, as I watched these images scan past on the TV in my living room, I began to have a thought: these pictures of the food that I make actually reveal something about me. But what, exactly?
Well, for starters, I think these pictures show that I’m not fussy. This salad, for example, isn’t molded or mounded or presented in a martini glass. It’s not overly worked; it’s just a jumble of good ingredients that I thought would taste good together. Still, there’s thought that went into it, a certain amount of editing: fennel and apples pair nicely, arugula and Parmesan help things along. But the radishes I got in my CSA wouldn’t really fit in here, would they, so I left them out. I guess that’s not apparent in the picture, but it’s something that helps explain what you’re seeing. Toasted walnuts make sense here, peanuts probably not. So add “thoughtfulness” to “not fussy” and you get two character traits that you can learn about me from this salad picture.
I can see how this exercise might teeter over into the absurd: Oh mussels and clams? That must mean I love the sea, that I’ve disavowed my Jewish heritage (shellfish! not Kosher), that I’m experimenting with bisexuality because of the vaginal implications. Ahem. Yeah, I see how that’s taking things too far. And yet I can’t help but think that this big pot of mollusks you see in the picture above does reveal something about me and my style of cooking; it’s loose, it’s exciting (note the red chile), it’s comforting, it’s slightly exotic (hey, those are cockles). It’s a cool moment when your food begins to reflect who you are.
Which raises the question: can you change who you are by changing how you cook? I certainly think so. For example, are you a penny pincher? Is it hard to justify buying the farmer’s market heirloom tomatoes when the supermarket tomatoes are half the price? Well, buy the heirloom tomatoes anyway and see if that loosens you up a bit. Or, conversely, if you’re a spendthrift, buying way more than you need for every meal, try cooking out of your refrigerator or pantry one night and see what you come up with. Being resourceful in the kitchen may spill over into other areas of your life. Same goes for how you handle fat and salt: if you’ve been stingy with it in the past, for fear of gaining weight, be more generous next time around to see how it improves your cooking (and your spirit and the spirit of everyone eating your food); if, on the other hand, you’re a little heavy handed with the butter, pull back to see if you can get away with less to achieve the same result. Maybe that discipline will lead you to the gym and you’ll have six pack abs and a record deal before you know it.
Character is revealed through action (I learned that in drama school) and cooking is nothing if not a series of physical actions shaped by character. Paula Deen and Anthony Bourdain both know how to whip cream by hand, but how they go about it will be totally different because of who they are as people; and I think the resulting whipped cream will taste and maybe even look different because of it. So remember, as you cook, this isn’t something to take lightly; every dish that you make is an edible self-portrait. How do you want to be remembered when people look back on the meals you’ve made over the course of your lifetime. As a bowl of Lucky Charms floating in expired milk? Or something a little grander, a little more ambitious, something a little more you.