Social Cooking

Photo of cornbread

Sometimes it’s not about the recipe at all. It’s just about sharing a good meal and its cooking with a couple of friends or, in my case, family visiting overnight from across the border. Three sleepy cooks and a remarkably delicious Sunday morning breakfast.

Why is it that food cooked together always tastes better and is remembered more vividly than food cooked alone?

I see five clear advantages to social cooking. Surely, there are more.

1. Cooking together is more fun.

Like the fun of realizing that yesterday’s breakfast (fresh scrambled eggs and freshly cured bacon from a local farm) simply needed some sort of bread, yet no bread was to be found in this mostly gluten-free household. Ah, but that beautiful cornmeal from my last trip to Vermont beckoned from the refrigerator. An iPhone search for gluten-free cornbread recipes provided the answer. Well, almost.

2. People cooking together are even more creative about overcoming obstacles.

Many gluten-free recipes call for either a gluten-free flour mix or several different, more obscure ingredients like brown rice flour, coconut flour, potato flour, almond flour, xanthum gum—and many more. I have a few of these ingredients on hand, but don’t really know what I’m doing with them. On my own (alone, that is), I experiment wildly and eat my creations unless they’re total disasters. My approach to baking lacks any sense of baking chemistry, yet over and over I dabble in what could only be called stream of consciousness baking. In private.

With three mouths to feed, I decided to leave the risk of wild experimentation to my visitors. They rose to the challenge. Of course, one of them happens to own an amazing bakery, The Danish Pastry House, outside of Boston. The other—let’s just say he has the dominant gene for wild experimentation in his blood. The recipe called for a blend of cornmeal and the nonexistent mix, for which they substituted almond flour. On my request, they reduced the amount of sugar called for in the recipe by half. If they made other adjustments, I’m not sure. Tending to the last of the grilling bacon without setting off the smoke alarm was my challenge. (One of the three dogs present had long since retreated to the second floor in anticipation of that rather predictable event. It didn’t happen, in case you’re wondering.)

3. Cooking together introduces a dash of mystery and surprise to the meal.

I’d started grilling the bacon a little earlier, in hopes of keeping it warm in the oven while we drank our tea and cooked breakfast. (Ask me how much of it actually made it to the oven to warm.) I drained away the fat, but the little crispy bits in the pan provided just the inspiration to the cook with the gene for wild experimentation. Into the cornbread they went, with just a drop or two of bacon fat.

He pondered a tour of the spice cabinet, but unprecedented restraint prevailed, and the cornbread went into the oven unspiced, but with an ounce or two of grated cheddar cheese on the top.

4. Cooking (and then eating) together involves unabashed exclamations of appreciation. Over and over.

This aspect of social cooking is probably more about social eating—but where, exactly, is the line between cooking and eating? Since 30 percent of that crispy bacon never made it to the table, exclamations of praise began flowing early and continued for hours after breakfast. The cornbread was perfect. The bacon? Even the dogs were excited about that. Scrambled eggs always seem better when they’re made by somebody else, but these were softly set and speckled with the bacon crispies that didn’t make it into the cornbread. Lots of compliments, all around. We all thought we were amazing. It’s hard to achieve that level of appreciation when you’re cooking and eating by yourself.

5. Cooking together inevitably leads to stories of other meals and culinary adventures. Good food conversation, in general.

Yes, even a delicious, classic breakfast like this one can do that. Talking about food brings it alive. It slows us down and makes us consider each part of the meal. The bacon had us talking about pigs, meat CSAs and how to eat good meat without breaking the bank. (Moderation is key. A 99 percent vegetarian like me really doesn’t need to stock the freezer. For regular meat eaters, I suspect a meat CSA would work beautifully.) We talked about pickles and butter—actually, I think we fully discussed every ingredient of the meal, and all the stories each brought to mind. We talked about the meal itself—a lot.

The night before, we’d been talking about the curious phenomenon of early childhood memories, and how vivid they can seem after years of being breathed to life through stories. I think shared meals have the same magic. Twenty years later, we still talk about my sister’s roasted goose with raisin stuffing. Not so much because it was delicious, but because it was a culinary event, the details of which are seared into memory and grow sharper with every recounting of the story. I’ve read that engaging as many of the five senses at once as possible sharpens the memory. It’s no wonder memories of amazing meal events can be so rich.

In the same way, a simple breakfast yesterday became a culinary event that promises to live on for years, long after the last crumb of leftover cornbread is gone. Alone? Well, it just wouldn’t have come close.

Try some wild experimentation yourself—better still, try it with some friends. We thank Jenn Cuisine for the inspiration and the original cornbread recipe itself. Jenn’s Quick and Easy Cornbread, Gluten Free would no doubt have been just fine not tinkered with at all!

For those of you who’ve wondered where I’ve been (a few of you have e-mailed your concern), please forgive my absence during this past month. I’ve been focusing on health, and look forward to sharing more of that journey with you in future posts. I appreciate your willingness to hang in there as well as your kind thoughts. I’m grateful to the many readers who have become part of my healing community. Together really does offer advantages!

19 responses

  1. Welcome back to the blogsphere, and thanks for writing about this great topic! I love the intimacy of cooking with others and always learn something new when I do, whether it’s a cooking tip or something I never knew about them…

    • Intimacy…that’s a great word for it. It really does create closeness to roll up your sleeves and cook together. Thanks for sticking with me while I was quiet!

  2. Glad to see you back! Funny you should write about this – I’ve recently been thinking that elaborate dinner parties by one person are more like performance art and collaborating is more enjoyable for everyone. It is funny too how differently everyone goes about tackling the same obstacles.

  3. Thanks, Jackie! You’re so right about the performance art thing. Come to think of it, even kitchen designs have moved to a collaborative model (not mine, I’m afraid), with plenty of space for everybody to jump in and cook together. Maybe the days of the lonely perfectionist cook in the kitchen are behind us!

  4. Thank you, Eleanor! Yes, cooking and preparing a meal together with others brings skills and weaknesses, mystery, and other assorted dynamics into the “mix” where we get to know and appreciate more and more about ourselves and others we are collaborating with. A wonderfully “delicious” article–thanks!

  5. TOTALLY agree! After our Unfolding meeting yesteray(about which you commented in my blog – thanks!) my friend Julia stayed and we made dinner together. Just as you say – not only good food and companionship – but doses of creativity arose. I had sauteed swiss chard with garlic, onions and a dash of nutmeg. Julia had made some simple french grean beans. She thought they looked lonesome on their own, so we mixed them together and I liked what we created. Great post, Eleanor!

  6. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the cornbread recipe! The bacon is an awesome addition, and I agree – it’s always more fun when one gets to cook and eat together with others :)

  7. Pingback: The Local Beet: Chicago » The Weekly Roundup for this week on Blogs Here and Yond

  8. I love to cook with others. Early in my marriage, my husband and I cooked together a lot. Now it is typically one of kids and I find that they eat better if they’ve helped.

  9. I’ve always felt that food is an important thread in the fabric of relationships. Even more so, when you cook together you create more than just a meal to be shared, but enjoy the deeper sense of camaraderie that shared creation brings. Sounds like the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning to me! (Glad to see you back…)

  10. You’re right…it’s about so much more than the food itself. It’s a very intimate process and, in a small kitchen, even more so. I hope you’re enjoying some memorable meals down there on your new farm!

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