The old routine of constant surprises

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The Independent Online
She might say, were she so inclined, 'It is one thing to step into the kitchen occasionally, when you feel like it, and produce a good meal. It is another to do it day in and day out.'

Quite right. Despite all the permutations of modern living, there are still millions of people, mainly women, who consistently provide carefully prepared meals for their families every day of the week.

As far as I am concerned, there are only a few ways in which routine is not a daunting obstacle to creativity. One has to abdicate one's heart or soul to some higher purpose - to be a monk, perhaps - to be able to do the same thing every day with a good heart and similar cheer.

There have been periods in my life - whole years, in fact - when I have been sole cook, so I know whereof I speak. This is particularly true, and difficult, when the house cooking runs the gamut from the slightly fancy dinner for friends to the daily grind for obstreperous, famished or fickle-appetited children.

After all, it is at the heart of the cooking equation that one does not cook for oneself, save as an abstract discipline akin to dancers' exercises at the barre. This means being in constant touch with the shifting tastes and appetites of those for whom one cooks. So-and-so, who has been eating spinach happily since he was six months old, has developed a sudden aversion: that infantile upper lip trembles at the very sight of the stuff. Does one plough on, or does one simply have, as my wife had this week, the happy notion of concealing the abhorred green in a souffle?

Getting around problems of this sort is as nothing compared with the truly nauseating task of having to go out and shop for food three times a week, wondering what the hell one is going to cook. For whole seasons of the year, any genuine variety in vegetables is out of the question. True, one now gets everything out of season, but that is the worst form of delusion: you may be getting spring vegetables in winter, but you know they have come an awfully long way, baby, and just how fresh and tasty are they?

Meat is even more dispiriting. In its many kinds it is always available, but no matter how good a gloss you put on the problem it is still basically beef, pork, lamb or poultry.

The good housewife, or househusband, is like a theatre director with a repertory company: he, or she, cannot vary the actors, nor invent new plays, but must choose from what is possible. Such a cook probably has a half-dozen familiar ways of preparing each kind of meat (generally time-tested and audience-tested), but introducing variety, not to speak of originality, into the month's menus is no easy task.

Yet many admirable cooks manage to perform this feat with, if not ease, at least smiling countenance. I dare say there are many times when they would rather be doing something else, but none the less they soldier on. I admire such cooks far more than I admire the grand chefs, whose 'repertory' consists of a few specialities which they have invented.

The art here, I suspect, is a negative one: it consists in not becoming dispirited at the task. For instance, writing a food column is in some ways a repetitive task. The materials (or subject) is always the same; one is condemned to dropping it on the editor's desk on the same day every week, as the cook is condemned to prepare a meal Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. It is only if one finds a way of taking pleasure in what one is doing that one can survive the task.

Observing everyday cooks, I have noticed something common to all of them, which is a vigorous spirit of invention, an extraordinary flexibility. The cooks in my parents' house planned dinners once a week, menus and all, from potage to pudding. No longer. Having bought what one finds best, one still has no idea what one is going to do with it. The rule is: do not make of it a repetitive action. The amount of creativity that can go into preparing the daily meal is its consolation.

Really good daily cooks have no taedium vitae. They have acknowledged that the task is a necessity, and that it is up to them to make it fun. These are the daily alchemists, their alembics the stove, the grill, the pan. They do not panic. They know their own skills. They are confident. Something is mulled over during the day and emerges in the evening. Not everything need be new or revolutionary every day; a single component, rethought, will illuminate any meal.

I suspect this little daily miracle depends a great deal on heart, on generosity of spirit. It is the opposite of our great 20th-century vice, the grievance, the feeling that something is being imposed on one when in fact one is offering up a gift. Lest you think me wildly romantic, let me add that this gift is of the humblest sort, and thus within the giving of all. It is only the transformation of a necessary action (eating) into an occasion (a meal).

The pleasure comes not merely from others' enjoyment, but from the acquisition of a confident art, a mastery of materials and techniques, the knowledge that, at any time, one can call on one's resources to perform this magic. That art is formed in the everyday kitchen. It is called endless practice and, if done with love, ends up in art.