Adding exactly the right amount of garlic to your pesto is a small, yet satisfying triumph. In cooking, as in life, when details come together there’s a sense of calm: all is as it should be. As a cook, hitting that golden mean-the perfect balance of flavors and aroma-is partly skill, partly luck. Why? Because there’s a spontaneous quality to balance that can’t be reproduced strictly by formula. No wonder the last instruction in many recipes is “season to taste.”
Learning to adjust the seasonings in life, as we aim for some semblance of balance, is a seemingly endless endeavor. It would be so comfortably mindless if we could just log onto a life of perfect harmony. No conflicts, no pain, no dealing with the irregular, messy, dark side of things. Not only would pesto be a snap-but relationships, responsibilities, resources would take care of themselves. No “season to taste” required.
But harmony just doesn’t work that way. By definition, it is an intelligent, active balancing of all aspects within a whole. The sour and sweet, the crooked and straight, the dark and the light—all must be accommodated. Without irregularities, inconsistencies and the correct proportion of opposing factors, whether it’s in a recipe, in music, a painting or in life itself, there is no depth, dynamism, life-and no harmony.
Finding the right proportions as we cook offers a clear ground of study for balancing other aspects of life. Take, for example, that pesto. We can control many factors-the proportion of basil to pine nuts and Parmesan, the type of oil, the method of preparation. With a home garden, we could even get consistency in more subtle factors, such as the quality of soil (and so the quality of the basil itself). Nonetheless, the recipes could never be duplicated. Different days, different circumstances, different mindsets; an infinite number of details add up to the bigger picture-the whole.
As cooks we encounter how very big that whole is. Alternative diets, unusual ingredients, organic farming, nutrition and the impacts of our food, cooking, shopping and consumption choices are elements of the trade that the modern day cook must consider. The whole, which may have initially seemed like the pleasure of our own pesto dinner, gradually transforms into an awareness of how our tiny little taste buds intimately connect to the rest of the world.
Cooking offers us an insight as we expand our search for harmony outside of the four walls of our kitchen, and to the rest of our world. It reminds us that here, in the dead of winter, if we didn’t live in Sub-Zero refrigerator land, relying on a massive food transit system to keep us happy, we’d be eating another meal of carrots and potatoes from the root cellar tonight. But we live in a time where root cellars are forgotten and technology allows us culinary freedom of choice. So, do we toss caution to the wind and indulge in strawberries and imported chocolate whenever we desire-or do we hunker down for yet another meal of boiled carrots and potatoes until the ground thaws?
Or—wait a second. Could there possibly be a middle ground? Is there a harmonious answer to satisfying our gastronomic inclination when local produce is scarce, while not forsaking a sense of global awareness and moral responsibility? I’ll vote for that.
Mary Taylor is an avid student of yoga and the gastronomic arts, having studied in India and France. The author of three cookbooks and co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality, Mary teaches workshops and seminars on food, eating and yoga. She is the director of The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.