How a Vase of Old Roses Can Teach Us How to Cook
It’s true that things have been a little hectic this week and as a result I haven’t gotten around to cleaning up the vase of old roses that is sitting on the shelf next to my desk. But it’s also true that I’m enjoying them just as much now as when they were pert and in full bloom and made the whole room smell like I had fallen headfirst into a velvety, rose-filled cloud. They remind me not to be too quick to determine when something is done and over, when it is beyond its use, when it is no longer perfect. What is perfection anyway?
We always think of perfection as a fixed, objective thing, something from which everything else is measured and often falling short. But interestingly, when we take a closer look at it, we can see that not only is perfection subjective, it’s also a moving target. What makes something perfect in one moment (fresh, fully bloomed roses) is not necessarily what makes it perfect in the next (soft, faded, gently-dropping-their-petals).
As cooks we are often concerned with perfection, perhaps even overly concerned. This can take the joy out of cooking and even prevent us from producing delicious food. If we are fixing our idea of what a dish should be on a photograph, for instance, or trying to reproduce an exact replica of how it was before, then we are missing out on making the best possible dish given the circumstances at hand. Better to reach for that and succeed than try for some misplaced notion of perfection and fail.
Cultivating the mind and the attention to notice and adjust to changing circumstances is what makes us better cooks. Not the perfect recipe, not the perfect ingredients, and not even the perfect end result. The weather, temperature, humidity, ingredients, our own state of mind all come into play. When we cook, we simply stand in the middle of this and respond.
Perfection exists only briefly, in the momentary abiding of the present or, to expand it slightly, the present circumstances. It is not a measure, but an experience. Or, as I just heard someone say this morning, it’s not an entity but an activity. When we understand things in this way, perfection suddenly becomes a much wider, more fluid event. It allows us to see, appreciate, and experience the beauty of our lives in any situation, even the rough ones.
The vase of old roses, even in the seemingly not-so-perfect stages of decline, are reminding me of this right now. In their form and color and in their fragility, they are astonishingly beautiful. One by one, their petals fall, sometimes silently, sometimes with a soft rustle. How is that not something to appreciate? How is that not perfect?
(Images: Dana Velden)