For most people, the key to unblocking creativity is to get your inner child to feel safe enough to come out and play. The creative child needs to know that she will not be chastised because her creation is not organized, presentable or adult enough.
Lately I’ve been encountering some blasts from the past that reminded me of what drew me to food and cooking in the first place. The first was this plastic play kitchen that I saw taken out to the curb with the trash. It was sitting abandoned in the rain in Mile End with in its mid 80’s My Little Pony colours. I didn’t actually have one of these, I would actually cook in the real kitchen, but they seemed like the promise of something really great. Like those Magic Ovens where you mix the powder with liquid, put it in the oven and cake comes out. Amazing! I had a magic trick set as a child, but I didn’t get as into it as I did experimenting with food.
I also saw an automated kitchen from the 70’s at a Museum in Germany this summer. It was the promise of all of the magic of the kitchen for adults. You don’t have to be the mad scientist in the laboratory, the kitchen can do everything itself…and you get all the credit! It turns out that automated kitchens never took off. People didn’t want to be cut out of the equation. They wanted to do the work. Samsung has come back with a bigger and badder automated kitchen that tells you what to do, keeping you in the process it plans and facilitates and you execute and confirm. It will order all of the food from the grocery store with your okay and guide you through the process. The automated and play kitchen evoke the promise of miracles and something magic happening. The kid’s kitchen is creative, but the automated kitchen is the adult creativity killer.
This Christmas, as I made curry powder and paste for my loved ones, I remembered that I have been cooking Christmas presents since I was 9 years-old. I baked shortbread cookies and decorated them in secret when my mom would be gone curling. I would vacuum-pack them and I had my my secret spot in the deep-freezer. I produced a different baked good each week for 3 or 4 weeks and gave a bag of frozen baked goods to each of my Aunts. I did this for a few years. I guess I followed the example of my Mom who made little jars of Roasted Garlic Dijon to put in stockings and my Auntie Janet, who made jalapeno jelly (Red and Green), but I did what I wanted to do on my own! I was so proud when I would give the bag of frozen cookies to my Aunt’s. Frozen cookies were accompanied by a variety of arts and crafts and brought them in a box that I declared top secret and off-limits. My Mom would say to the people in the family with puzzled eyes and a creased forehead, “I don’t know. I didn’t help her. She did it all on her own.” I like the kitchen best when it feels like arts and crafts made for the ones you love.
I also did a food collage in September with images from Sel et Poivre and Saveurs culinary magazines from the 1980’s. At first, flipping through I thought, “boy this is dated”. But the more I looked, the more I felt these deep heart pangs of nostalgia. I started devouring cookbooks when I was about 5 years-old. That was in 1987. The images in Sel et Poivre were of what seemed the ultimate culinary ideal at the time (some kind of 80’s glamour with the French still holding the podium.) Saveurs explored world cuisine, and me being from the West Coast I grew-up with Japanese, South East Asian and Indian cuisine being more my traditions than North American stuff. They say that in food there is a constant tension between the familiar (what we ate in our early childhood) and novelty (discovering food). Our personality and mood tends to position us on the spectrum daily- when lonely or sad we crave the familiar when joyful and exuberant the novel. My familiar was very novel to others and my personality and mood constantly pushed me to try new things.
I started cutting and pasting my collage furiously. I mapped out my gastronomic timeline. My love of garlic, fish, seafood and spices was imprinted in my pre-embryotic soul, being represented at the bottom of the long ascending imagescape. My mom (represented as a barbie in a vintage knit dress) showed me soufflés, clams and poached eggs. There was a breakfast-in-bed tray to remind me of the farm breakfasts served to me on a tray at my Grandma Jean’s: Farm eggs, fresh thick farm bacon, tomato slices from the garden, cottage cheese, buttered toast and chicken-in-the-mug (chicken bouillon).
Then there was Indian bread, rice and curry photos, as when I was 6 years-old I started getting baby-sat by an Indian family and I ate Indian food every day for a few years.
Later came Coulibiac, one of the first dishes I ever made at Nuart. Herbs and perfumed oils are represented. There is Spanish Garlic soup which I made regularly and then saw again when I worked at Casa Tapas in another form. I also went to Spain and worked briefly at El Centro Gallego and so put a leg of Serrano in for good measure. I weaved in the Korean barbecue apparatus, Chinese, Italian and Japanese fair and scenery, and I put in other symbols of the people and events that had deep affective ties to certain foods and periods in my life.
This exercise was fun and liberating. It made me remember where I came from, and how important food was in my ties with the people I am closest to. It also reminded me that my culinary journey has been very rich and varied. I am also very proud of my gastro/culinary roots. The path I’ve tasted or cooked in my life is my own. No one can disqualify it. It is unique- and so is everyone else’s. Our past is not dated or flawed it is a series of pieces in our evolution.
Four tips to keep the love and creativity in the kitchen:
Remember that kitchens are places of magic, creation and transformation. They are safe for anyone to come and play in- especially the creative inner child.
Food is only as fun and exciting as the people you share it with. It is a gift.
Remember where you came from and what you instinctively loved to cook, smell and look at. Those are your roots and tools and they are in you to inspire you. You do not taste things like anyone else and you do not even taste the same thing the same way from moment to moment, so do not try to be anyone else. Just be who you are naturally and instinctively now.
Challenge yourself. Cooking shouldn’t be intimidating. Try things out. You’d be surprised what seems daunting, but is actually very simple. You’ll also be surprised how crafty you can be at saving or adapting something. If it is a flop, that’s experience under your belt. Own your mistakes and your inspiration!
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