Jack London once said that the most wonderful achievement of our tremendous civilization was food; its inconceivable abundance, its infinite variety, its marvelous delicacy. London claimed that life is life, when we have wonderful things to eat.
I discovered my passion for cooking around the same time that I discovered my passion for writing. Even as a precocious, introverted, curious, albeit strange six year-old, I knew that these two activities were tied together with a common thread. I didn’t want ballet shoes, Barbies, or fancy dresses. I wanted a spatula, an apron with my name embroidered on it, and a turquoise leather bound journal. My parents weren’t too keen on the idea of throwing in the quill pen just yet although I did offer to make my own Roman ink for the pen with berries from my grandmother’s garden. Something about the range of colors produced from strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries once combined with vinegar failed to bode well with either of my parents and for a sweet and shy child, I was infuriated. Call it luck, sheer coincidence or the inevitable events of my predestined future, but it was that exact moment in which I discovered my calling; I was to grow up and become both a cook and a writer. It was my job to figure out how to bridge the gaps between these two lifestyles.
I meandered through my undergraduate career with the habitually monotonous night terrors filled with questions of, “What in the hell have I done? Why am I getting a degree in creative writing? Where have you led me, Jack London, you fool, with your suave words and witty ways?” To which I would eventually fall back into my slumber and dream of stabbing him with my never acquired quill pen, no less, in an effort to prove my relentless anger towards being propelled to a word-related demise and eventual lack of a career. It was also during this time that I stopped cooking for the most part, stopped recording recipes in my food journal and stopped expressing myself through the creation and presentation of various culinary concoctions. I suppose I figured that a few brief though potentially disastrous fire-related baking situations in the college dorm room were signs to prove to me that I had in fact, chosen the right path as a writer, not a cook.
In reality, let’s just say that birthday cupcakes, a gaggle of 18 year-olds in a dorm room, and a handle of Popov vodka just don’t mix that well, after all.
It wasn’t until after I graduated and moved back to my parents’ avocado farm in northern San Diego, that I rediscovered my love of cooking. I was burnt out from finals and graduation and not entirely sure if getting a master’s in English and creative writing the following fall was the right leap to be taking. Just looking at a piece of literature was enough to make my stomach turn. It no longer made my heart leap out of me and into the atmosphere as it searched for a page of words to dive into. I had spent four years dissecting, dismembering and disjointing my one true love; books. In doing so, I had lost my thirst for them, lost the eagerness with which I went to the book store, cranked open their spines and shoved my nose into them, smelling the ink of the pages, letting it envelop me, letting it transport me to a different place, a different time, a different world. It was like breaking up with a boyfriend I once had intense physical chemistry with; only now, kissing him just repelled and repulsed me. It was the opposite of magnetism.
“Stop judging me,” I told my loyal cohort of books as they waited patiently for me on the shelves of Mom and Dad’s 8 foot-tall pine bookcases. The truth was, I didn’t want them, with their mellifluous prose and romantic wordings and flowing language that left me wondering and wanting more. I wanted something stagnant. I wanted something precise and with exact measurements. I wanted cookbooks. It was time to rekindle an old flame with an old fling–food.
Going to the store, the one that took fifteen minutes to get to get to in the countryside in Dad’s old Suburban, became therapeutic to me. It reminded me of walking the fifteen minutes to get to City Lights Books in San Francisco. It was the event of it, like London said, the event of life, the inconceivable abundance, the infinite variety, the modern delicacy. It didn’t matter what ingredients I pulled from the world around me in an effort to create and construct something that made me feel alive. It didn’t matter whether it was flour, salt and eggs from the store for a recipe, or people, places, and sounds from the street for a story. My creativity lied in my ability to create nothing out of something and it didn’t matter what nothings lead me to those somethings.
I came back to San Francisco with the sheer determination to become a writer for one of San Francisco’s most well-known publications. When I heard I got the job, complete with my own desk, my own telephone number, and my own email; I was ecstatic. My food world and my writing world had molded together into something wonderful. Food journalism in the city of San Francisco was booming, and I got to be a part of that.
I ate, drank, and photographed my way through chocolate events, farmers’ markets, and store openings, connecting with sensational people who had big hearts and a thirst to uncover the world around them. But when I sat down to write, something was missing. I tried using the people that I met like I used characters in my stories, the surroundings as my settings, the food as the desire of human nature that brought us together. I felt invigorated in the beginning, as if I was connecting the dots, weaving the strands of history and time and people together. As time went on, I was advised to limit my use of first person, to adhere to fact-based information, and to construct an article about the event, not my story of the event. I was also told to be less positive, more objective, and more critical, In essence, I was told to be the exact opposite of who I am. Ironically enough, the article that I wrote prior to these suggestions went against each and every one of them yet brought in the most viewer response and interest of the thirty-some articles I created throughout my six months spent with the publication.
But nonetheless, I thought to myself, “Okay. I can do this, follow these guidelines.”
As I soon discovered, I could not.
These weren’t just characters in a short piece of prose fiction I was working on. These were people in my life, people like the Italian restaurant owner with the infectious spirit, the one who insisted I enjoy complimentary post-dinner champagne with him after closing, a time in which he told me about how his world came crashing down when a restaurant reviewer 18 years earlier called him a “drunk” in her article. He showed me photos of his children, and opened up to me about how disappointed they were, how ashamed he was. Sure, it could have made for a good article, The Italian Restaurant Owner Drinks Himself Stupid Once Again. But he connected with his customers, and he connected with me. He became a character in my real world, one with empathy and emotions and the desire to make his family proud.
And then there was the cookie delivery lady, who drove all the way across the city on Halloween, one of her busiest days of the year, just so I could try her cookies, the cookies she started baking when her mother became severely ill. My editor told me my article sounded like a marketing ploy, and maybe it did, but doesn’t part of the joy of food reside in the sharing of it, the sharing of the chef and the customer, the writer and the reader, and the acknowledgement of the beauty that is found in the bringing together of those two people? Of course I was going to care about this woman’s baked goods enough to praise them, because I cared about her enough to want to praise her, too. Perhaps that was the moment I realized being a food critic most likely was not for me, unless that meant hiding behind an office cubicle every day and not interacting with the people who put so much effort into making the food, but that definitely was not for me either.
I learned invaluable things about the structural and editorial aspects of journalism during my time with my ‘dream job’. I learned how to use various blogging platforms, how to work under stressful deadlines, how to conduct interviews and schedule events, and how to sneak to the roof from the 7th floor to eat ice cream when the Blue Angels are flying overhead. Most importantly, I learned that regardless of where my creative passion lies, my drive to build, to compose, to design, to devise, to generate, and to formulate comes from a deeply mystifying and indescribable yearning within me. Whether I become a chef, or a baker, or a novel writer, or a poet, or a journalist, or even a trained Cirque du Soleil acrobat, I’m going to carry that thought with me from here on out. Because like Jack London says, life is the cheapest thing in the world. There is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless. Wherever my various passions may lead me, and to whatever extent they dictate my career path, I will constantly remind myself that I find the type of life that London speaks of in people, in food, and in the stories that bring them together to bridge the gaps in geography, in time, and in culture.
Maybe landing that dream job doesn’t always lead us to the path we are so eagerly anticipating. Maybe, what becomes most valuable to us as human beings, are the things we learn while on that journey, the people we meet, the stories we are unknowingly pulled in to. Maybe, we have to keep searching, keep prying, keep diving deeply into those things we know we love, in an effort to discover who the hell we even are and what the hell we even want. It may take a while to get there.
It may take a lifetime.
But I’m okay with that.
Because now I know that each thing I do, I do with love, with desire, with a passion to discover the precise reason I am here at this moment on this earth to simultaneously learn something from others and teach something to others. It’s a bizarre thing, but when we accept it, we understand it, and the world opens up in front of us to make sense at last.
So cheers, my friends.
May you go out into the world and find exactly what it is you are looking for, whatever that may be, and wherver you may find it.
Because you will get there, eventually :)