Cooking with Love…and Machetes

When my grandma cooks, the only cooking utensil she uses is a big knife.  This knife, called a bolo in my Grandma’s native language of Tagalog, is about an inch longer than a butcher knife.  In English, it’s called a machete. I’m used to cooking with lots of equipment and feel like an array of cutting implements is a must.  I like having little knives to cut little things, big knives to cut big things, medium knives to cut medium things and butter knives to butter buttery things. To cook at my grandma’s house I had to bring and buy tons of stuff. For my grandma, there is only the machete.

The machete is not just for the kitchen. Once at seven in the morning, my husband and I awoke because we heard loud thudding coming from the backyard. He went to check and Grandma had climbed an old, rickety, homemade wooden ladder in just her socks and was hacking off branches with her machete.  My husband coaxed her down assuring her that he could take care of the tree trimming and would get started as soon as Home Depot opened. Later that morning, he bought a chain saw, a steel ladder, work goggles, and work gloves and trimmed the trees.

When I visit the next summer and I ask Grandma if the trees are still okay, she says, “Yes, still okay.” Great. But after a pause, she starts talking about the grass. She says that the grass is going to grow as tall as me. Then it will catch fire and burn the house down.  She adds gravely, “I will go and cut it. It can be done. I will go every day and cut little by little.” She’s determined of course to do this with just the machete. I immediately tell my brother to please, please mow the grass this weekend.  I give him instructions about the mower, edger and battery pack. I also remind him to wear googles, gloves, closed-toed shoes, and long pants.

Somehow we have become accustomed to needing so much stuff.  Just with these two simple activities, cooking and yardwork, so much stuff.

Although I’m not really an expert on yardwork let me get something straight: I’m not saying that using the machete for yard work is a better option over modern equipment. A job that will take you a couple hours will take you days with the machete. My grandma is totally fine with that. It gives her something to do and it’s good exercise as long as she doesn’t overdo it. When I say ‘overdoing it’ I mean like is if she is climbing a ladder with just her socks on in the wee hours of the morning or rushing to cut the grass before it apparently catches on fire and kills us all.

I thought of Grandma when I watched the documentary, How to Live to 101, about Okinawan people over 100 years old. Filmmakers asked the old people, called centenarians, what their secrets were for a long life. One of the things the centenarians mentioned was gardening every day. Like Grandma, the centenarians did their gardening with old-school equipment- nothing gas or electric. It was amazing to watch 103-year-old men and women swinging and slinging shovels, tills and hoes like it was nothing.

Pondering the machete, I started to realize that we really don’t need what we think we need. In my own life I’ve been holding on this notion that I would be such an awesome cook if I just had the right stuff. Stuff like: a shelf of beautiful recipe books with glossy close-ups of food, stainless steel appliances, and of course tons and tons of cooking equipment like knives, bowls, gadgets and cookware-all with 5-star reviews. I have this fantasy of owning a Kitchen Aid mixer in this light-blue color that the people at Kitchen Aid have dubbed, “Blue Ice.” In this fantasy I would also have Blue Ice kitchen décor accent pieces. It would all be in a newly renovated kitchen with white cabinets and granite counter tops. I’d make amazing dishes including homemade, fancy cupcakes with different colored frosting and cute decorations.  I’d put the cupcakes in a white ceramic cupcake pedestal with a clear dome lid.  The cupcake pedestal would be sitting beautifully on the granite counter top against the white cabinets with the Kitchen Aid mixer in the background complimenting the Blue Ice décor accents…I could go on forever.

Then reality sets in. Making this fantasy into a reality would take a lot of time.  It would be really expensive!  I would have to spend more time at work to earn money to buy all those things. Renovating the kitchen would be a massive expense and then I would have to spend all that time handing my husband tools while he installs the kitchen (yes, poor me right?).  And then there is all that 5-star equipment which would take more time and money. I would have to dig through reviews on Amazon, look for ads and coupons in the mail, wait for sales, stalk different items at Costco or Target waiting to see if and when they would ever get marked down so I could buy them. Massive amounts of money, energy, and time expended until I could finally settle down and start making those beautiful cupcakes.

To calm myself down, I go back to pondering the machete. Why does my grandma use only the machete? Because the machete is the only thing she needs. That is how she learned to cook. Having these extensive knife sets are not common in the Philippines. Actually, having fancy kitchens with all the expensive equipment, appliances and gadgets that we have in the U.S is certainly not a common thing in other less-affluent countries. Think of the kitchen in countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.  What about all the kitchens in all those little countries in Africa? Also the less-prosperous countries in Eastern Europe like Bosnia where my husband grew up. However, even without all the stuff we have here, the average person in those countries can still cook and often better than their American counterparts.

I was talking about this with my friend Saida who grew up in Rwanda.

Saida said, “Americans can’t cook! You’re lucky you have a husband who can cook. Miralem can cook because he is a foreigner. Foreigners know how to cook.” Needless to say, Saida and the members of her family that I have met are awesome cooks and so are Miralem and his family.  As for me? Being born and raised in the good old U.S. of A entails that I have a respectable knowledge base of all the American essentials- casseroles, meatloaf, spaghetti, eggs and chili. I also know how to use all the shortcuts like canned/jarred sauces, cream of mushroom soup, McCormick seasoning packets and cake mixes from a box. My most impressive recipes are Filipino foods like fried rice, lumpia, sinigang, arroz caldo, and chicken adobo. American or Filipino, these cuisines take me about an hour or two hour, tops (with the exception of egg rolls which take forever because of the endless rolling and frying). My cooking is nothing compared to Saida or Miralem’s cooking.  They can literally cook for hours, all day long, for a single meal. They do crazy things that only God Himself or Martha Stewart Herself would know.  Things like making mayonnaise, marshmallow or meringue from scratch. Things like adding 12 eggs for a cake, adding raw rice directly to a panful of hot oil, or rolling phyllo dough so thin that it stretches like skin over the entire kitchen table-so thin you can read a newspaper through it. Watching either of them cook is like watching magic. Out of the chaos delicious food appears right before your eyes.

How did they become such good cooks? Well, foremost, they learned from their moms. Saida and Miralem both grew up with stay-at-home moms and learned from their moms probably more than most American-born children learn from their moms.  Moms in other less affluent countries often do not have the same opportunities as women in America. I imagine these moms spend more time at home cooking with their kids while our moms are busy with jobs or activities outside of the home. This was true for my family. My mom worked as a nurse and my mom’s mom, Grandma (when she wasn’t working around the house with her machete), worked as a midwife.  My grandma was busy so only taught my mom basic Filipino cooking which was then passed on to me.  My cooking skills, which I consider pretty basic, are from my mom and grandma and from cookbooks and T.V shows I encountered while growing up in America.

Second of all, Miralem and Saida put in a lot of time. I think they are able to do this because they cook in a very relaxed manner. When Saida calls me over for dinner and I come in around 5 p.m. or so she is like, “Oh, I better get started.” She does not care about trying to have dinner on the table at 7p.m. or having her kids in bed by 9 p.m.  We usually sit down to eat around 10 p.m. talking and laughing the whole time. When I realize the time and apologize thinking that I stayed too late she says, “It’s fine! In Africa friends and neighbors talk all night long. In America, your friends are not really as good as friends because they don’t want to do that.” Cooking with Saida is so fun and relaxing. Miralem cooks like that too, very relaxed and willing to let the food determine the time table. He whips whatever we feel in the mood for with whatever we have in the kitchen.  There is a lot of improvising, he never follows a recipe, and does not get thrown off if he can’t find a particular ingredient.  This relaxed and fun style of cooking reminds me of shows like Racheal Ray or The Barefoot Contesa.  It’s cooking with the flow with a sense of joy and love.

In the past, my way of cooking more resembled the show Hell’s Kitchen. A frenzy of chopping and frying and everybody better get out of my way or else.  However, while cooking there are the natural stopping points when one must wait for something to boil, thicken, or brown. It’s as if the laws of physics are telling us, “Hey, slow down!” These stoppings points used to frustrate me and I would turn up the heat or start on another part of the dish.  Those would be the times that the cooking would go wrong.

Ah, those time when the cooking goes wrong.  The food turns out burnt/over salted/bad for whatever reason and cannot be consumed by another human being. There is no other option but to trash it. Whenever this happened to me, I used to go crazy cursing myself for rushing.  I would think about the wasted time: the hour of cooking, plus the clean-up time, plus the time spent shopping for ingredients.  It was enough to make me want to give up and eat cereal and pizza forever. Because of the often frenzied pace of modern American life, the land where we think, “time is money,” I think many people may fall into this trap. The idea of wasting time is getter more unbearable. I think that as a result, people are cooking less and less. Americans in general do not, or feel they do not have time.

But is it true that we really do not have time or are we just afraid of getting burnt out or frustrated? It seems to me that if you often cook the Hell’s Kitchen way it will burn you out. When one keeps rushing and rushing, the momentum becomes hard to stop and hard to control. I have come to realize that this is not the best way to cook (or to live life either). The better way is to just relax, take your time and breathe. Also, what’s stopping us from laughing, singing, talking and having fun with it? It is true that the relaxed way takes more time. Maybe time is money but time is also your life.

The more I cook the relaxed way-actually stopping to sit with a cup of tea, laugh with a family member, or just sit and be- the more I learn that this way of cooking is more nourishing.  It will nourish the cook long before one even takes the first bite.

I try to remember that mess-ups are a part of life and necessary to get better. I find that cooking from the heart reduces the likelihood of messing up and if one does mess up, those times are less likely to end in shouting or tears. In my life, great stories have started with, “Remember that time we set something on fire?” (Saida and me) and “Remember that time we made that cake that turned to goo in the fridge?” (Miralem and me). I would have missed out on some great memories if we just decided to watch the cooking channel instead.  (Great stories do not start with: “Remember that time we were watching the cooking channel?”)

If you have the desire to be a better cook, it’s worth it to put in the time even if you suck or mess up sometimes. Why? Because there is no magical cooking equipment that will transform someone into a better cook. The single factor that will make one a better cook is something that seems too simple to be true: it’s actually cooking!

Often we avoid doing and instead keep researching, fantasizing, shopping, complaining and worrying. When I fall into this cycle, I try to remember what one of my favorite thinkers, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, said in his book, Being Peace: “So many conditions of happiness are available-more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”  When one gets the urge to do an inherently positive thing- such as create something, express through art, do something good for others-this is our soul calling. We were put on this earth with these bodies to do something with them. Most of the time we have enough to answer that call today.

Following your dream does not necessarily have to be something dramatic.  If you want to cook, one does not have to move to France to study at a fancy school, get a new kitchen, or buy better and more appliances and gadgets.  What you have right now in your kitchen is good enough. Sometimes we get so hung up on what we don’t have and get obsessed about not having enough time or stuff and then use that as an excuse to do nothing.  The result is getting stuck and endlessly wasting time that we could be spent following our dreams.

Think about what you really want to do. Do you have a big knife?  You have enough to get started. Do it with joy and love.