The world is wily and does not want to be caught are the words of poet Susan Mitchell. Artists, writers, cooks or anyone who wrestles with the muse knows this is true. Grimed-faced determination may get us far, sometimes very far, but in the end it will always leave us just short of satisfaction. The tight-fisted grip stills the butterfly but without flight, what is left?
The world may not want to be caught and tamed, but it does like to be asked to dance. If you're stuck in a rut, or bored, or you can't seem to find the magic, then try a little playfulness.
Playfulness in the kitchen is as necessary as salt. When I think of the contemporary cooks that I admire, they all share a lively sense of curiosity and willingness to not get too worked up about things. The exuberance of Jamie Oliver, the mischievousness of Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater's twinkle-eyed excitement over a roast chicken. A pinch of chili in the dessert! A nip of Brandy in the stew! Let's serve giraffe shaped pancakes for breakfast!
Cooking is fun. From our youngest, mud-pie making years we instinctively enjoy the hands-on process of combining and mixing and patting into cakes. I have a strong childhood memory of running upstairs and locking myself in the bathroom the minute the phone rang. Knowing my mother would be occupied for a while, I would 'cook' in the sink, mixing up baby powder and globs of hand cream with bits of lipstick and other assorted medicine cabinet fare. It was great, gleeful fun until, of course, the phone call ended and my mother came looking for me.
In order to truly be absorbed in play, we first have to forget ourselves and become somewhat wild and reckless, untethered from our constraints and fixed ideas. This may sound a like dangerous advise for the kitchen but it actually is an important ingredient to good cooking. We need to be inquisitive, maybe even a little wanton and impulsive, to find the full pleasure of our activities.
When's the last time you've found yourself immersed in kitchen play, your entire body covered in flour or surrounded by a gingerbread village or up to your elbows in fish guts? Wouldn't that be just an amazing and wonderful way to spend a few hours, or an entire afternoon? So go on then, get into the kitchen and break a few rules. Get messy, try something brand new, something that makes you laugh or maybe even gasp. The worst that can happen is that you'll end up with take-out tonight. But the best, ah, the best that can happen is that you'll have had yourself a little dance with the world.
(Image: Dana Velden)