“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ~ Hippocrates, father of medicine
It’s a running joke in my family of origin that I don’t know how to boil water.
This is because one time, when I was a teenager, I set about to make myself macaroni and cheese.
I pulled out the pan, put it on the stove, and turned on the burner. I forgot to add water. A prescient incident to be sure, one that led to me relying on sandwiches and frozen meals for years.
But it’s not entirely fair to say that I didn’t know how to cook. It’s closer to the truth to say that no one ever taught me how to cook.
Growing up, my family didn’t often “cook” in the traditional sense of the word. We mostly ate Hamburger or Tuna Helper, casseroles, steaks off the grill, tacos from a package.
Fresh ingredients? Fresh herbs? Organic? Fresh fruits and vegetables? Seasonings other than salt and pepper? It all seemed like too much money, too much time, too much energy.
But then both my children were colicky as infants. As a toddler, my older daughter came down with stomachaches and rashes “for no reason.” I had been plagued with migraines, anxiety, depression, and chronic hives since I was a teenager.
Could the foods we were eating have played a role in our health? I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew I needed to learn how to cook.
I traded my longtime friend Jen: yoga classes for cooking classes.
She came over to my house with a knitted grocery bag full of fresh ingredients, a few just-printed recipes, and so much bubbling enthusiasm I couldn’t help but let my intimidation turn to excitement.
The first thing she taught me was how to dice an onion. She took my like-new chef’s knife—maybe a wedding gift?—from my knife block and showed me how to use it. Put the tip down first. Then roll it down through the vegetable. Let the knife do the work. Keep your fingers out of danger.
First, we cross-cut through the whole onion. Then, we made some narrow, perpendicular slices that went close to but not through the half onion. Finally, several downward slices resulted in small, identically-sized pieces.
“This way, they will cook evenly,” she explained. As I ran my fingers through the raw, chopped onion, I couldn’t help but sneak a couple of sweet morsels into my mouth.
She showed me similar techniques for chopping up other vegetables, and discussed every vegetable’s preferred (read: easier and safer) method of preparation. Using a potato peeler rather than a paring knife to remove the skin from a butternut squash is something that has likely spared my fingers over the years.
After, we scooped out the goopy seeds from our gourd, rinsed them off, dried them, tossed them in olive oil and sea salt, spread them out evenly on a pan, and roasted them. They transformed into a wonderful snack that lasted through the rest of the lesson.
When we finally turned the stove on, she taught me how to gauge the rightness of the temperature by holding my hand a few inches over the bottom of the pot. “There,” she said. “Feel this. Right here is a good temperature to add the oil.” I felt both an intimacy with the heat and a surprise in the knowledge my hand relayed to me. She didn’t care whether the dial said “medium low” or not, and, suddenly, neither did I.
As the onions simmered gently in oil, I inhaled deeply. They were opening themselves up for us, the lucky recipients of their prana (life-force). I never knew onions could smell so good.
Keeping one eye on our dancing onions, we turned our attention to chopping up fresh herbs, peppers, and greens. There was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be more than in my own kitchen, with all my senses engaged in a love affair with these simple, fresh ingredients.
As we continued, she glanced now and then at the printed recipes. She gleaned bits of information, but then decided for herself what she was going to do with it. When we didn’t have an ingredient on the list, we improvised.
Our meal—vegetable enchiladas with made-from-scratch pico de gallo, and gnocchi with chard, blue cheese, and caramelized onions—may have been an odd pairing. But it was delicious beyond compare. Every flavor, every bite, was alive with prana and healing energy. I sensed the food offering back the love we had poured into it.
Cooking suddenly seemed a whole lot like yoga.
Like a yoga pose, we can feel our way into a recipe, allowing our intuition to guide us. Like a yoga pose, recipes are just rough outlines, leaving ample room for play. And, like yoga, if something doesn’t feel right, we can adjust and modify until it does.
Cooking, Jen told me, does not require the same kind of precision as baking, which is why she enjoyed it so much. There is more room for artistry. Watching her cook, as her faced flushed and her eyes sparkled, was like watching a sacred dance, a peace offering, a prayer in motion.
Jen taught me how to be—even meditate— with the food I was cooking. She encouraged me to bravely walk into my own kitchen, confidently pick up my tools, and coax raw ingredients into delicious, nutritive life.
Over time and with practice, my family’s health issues, and my own, began to subside. Today, more than a decade later, we all have a deeper sense of what good food means to our bodies. We still make mistakes—eat the wrong thing, or too much of a good thing—but we can usually point to the reason why our bodies are unhappy with us.
I’ve even added into our family habits the additional knowledge I gained through studying Ayurveda—such as changing up our food routines with the seasons, or for our particular constitution, or to address our current symptoms.
For me, cooking has become an art, as it is for my friend Jen. But it is also a science, which results in a marriage of yin and yang that satisfies my whole self.
When I go home to visit my family of origin, or when they come to our house, I sometimes make a favorite recipe for them. While they enjoy the unusual flavors and sometimes ask for the recipe, they rarely fail to remind me that I was the girl who couldn’t boil water.
That was the beginning of my story. But, thanks to those cooking lessons with Jen, it wasn’t the end of it.
Author: Keri Mangis
Image: Igor Miske/Unsplash
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Leah Sugerman
Social Editor: Callie Rushton