As a college student, I soon realized with dismay that I was not meant to be a biologist. I was more interested in biology's sweeping narratives of evolution, adaptation and chemical attraction than in following good lab protocol. But many years later, there is one lesson I remember as mystical. It's a process as familiar to the home cook as it is to the researcher.
There are some proteins that change their structure through exposure to heat, salt or acid. Take away the change agent, though, and it reverts back to origins. For other compounds, once they are exposed at a certain threshold they can never return. We can see this as lime juice seeps in and "cooks" tender raw fish into kinilaw, or in that quick flash of an egg hitting a hot pan. This second cooking is about total transformation, a disruption so complete there is no going back.
It's a process called "denaturing" - although it is natural. The reversible kind is found in certain foods I don't care much for - like Jell-O, an uncertain liquid and solid thing. Many foods I do love, like kinilaw or a frittata, are examples of the latter. They deliciously exist, made possible by complete surrender to a new form and way of being.
Technical as denaturing sounds, this process of complete transformation is a somewhat romantic and a very human story. It is hopeful. And scary. Complete surrender to a new and even unnamed shape? Sometimes the ambivalence of Jell-O seems a lot safer than the irrevocable change of a frittata.
And this takes me to the inspiration for this post, to the questionings on love that surfaced in my late 20's and followed me from the kitchens to the fields and down to the subways.
Love, that active ingredient, is like a kitchen fire, salt, or vinegar. If we allow ourselves to be cooked, it can be scary to knowingly offer all that we are, uncertain if it will end in something scrumptious or just...charred.
Truth is, it takes more than the sheer force of that powerful ingredient for transformation to occur. It takes a substace willing to take it all in. It takes knowing that afterwards, change will be permanent, even when that ingredient is gone.
Tonight the kitchen is a glad but aching place. I am learning anew how to cook with this heart I have. I am learning how wholeness and brokenness are kindred, how the pained heart reflects a capacity to feel, how the risk of change is outweighed by the danger of becoming numb and tasteless.
Cooking with an aching heart is about staying awake. It is to continue even when the knife slips onto a naked finger. It is to clean up the blood but get back to the cutting board again, putting aside all trepidation. To cook with an aching heart is to fearlessly peel roots and reveal what's really under the skin. It is to dice onions that make you cry, squeeze lemons despite their wince, and balance out sweetness with salty, bitter and sour.
Sometimes (and this is the hardest to learn) cooking with an aching heart is to discern when something just doesn't taste right. There is nothing to blame but the broken oven. It is to cook for an entire neighborhood and steal mouthfuls between moments. And night after night, to doggedly prepare a meal for one until finally inviting the beloved guest for dinner.