Aileen Suzara ’06 is a Filipina/American educator, cook, eco-activist, farmer and adobo champion. While completing a B.A. in Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College, she fell in love with the power of story to highlight and to create change–from the voices of climate change fighters to the stories of California’s farmworkers. Aileen’s writing appears in The Colors of Nature, Earth Island Journal, Growing Up Filipino, Hyphen, and more. She blogs on food, farming, and place at Kitchen Kwento..
As an undergraduate student, I realized with dismay that I was not meant to be a biologist. I was more interested in biology’s sweeping narratives of evolution, adaptation and attraction than in following good lab protocol. But many years later, there is one lesson that I remember as mystical. It’s a process as familiar to the home cook as it is to the researcher.
There are some proteins that change their structure through exposure to heat, or a compound like salt or acid. Take away the change agent, though, and it reverts back to origins. Yet for other proteins, once exposed at a certain threshold they never return. We can see this as lime juice seeps in and “cooks” tender raw fish into kinilaw, or in that quick flash of an egg hitting a hot pan. This second cooking is about total transformation, disruption so complete there is no going back.
It’s a process called “denaturing,” although it is natural. The reversible kind is found in certain foods I don’t care much for—like Jell-O, an uncertain liquid and solid thing. Many foods I do love, like kinilaw or a frittata, are examples of the latter. They deliciously exist, made possible by complete surrender to a new form and way of being. Technical as denaturing sounds, this process of complete transformation is a somewhat romantic and a very human story. It’s hopeful. And scary. Complete surrender to a new and even unnamed shape? Sometimes the ambivalence of Jell-O seems a lot safer than the irrevocable change of a frittata.
And this takes me to the inspiration for this post, to the questionings on love that have surfaced and followed me from the kitchens to the fields to the subways.
Love, that active ingredient, is like a kitchen fire, salt, or vinegar. If we allow ourselves to be cooked, it can be scary to knowingly offer all that we are, uncertain if it will end in something scrumptious or just…charred.
Truth is, it takes more than the sheer force of that powerful ingredient for transformation to occur. It takes a substance willing to take it all in. It takes knowing that afterwards the change will be permanent, even when that ingredient is gone.
Tonight is a glad but aching place. I am learning anew how to cook with this heart I have. I am learning how wholeness and brokenness are kindred, how the pained heart reflects a capacity to feel, how the risk of change is outweighed by the danger of becoming numb and tasteless.
Cooking with an aching heart is about staying present. It is to continue even when the knife slips onto a naked finger. It is to clean up the blood but get back to the kitchen again, putting aside trepidation. To cook with an aching heart is to fearlessly peel roots and reveal what’s really under the skin. It is to dice onions that make you cry, squeeze lemons despite their wince, and balance out sweetness with salty, bitter and sour.
Sometimes (and this is the hardest to learn) cooking with an aching heart is to discern when something just doesn’t taste right and there’s nothing to blame but the broken oven. It is to cook for the entire neighborhood and eat mouthfuls stolen between moments. And as night approaches, to doggedly prepare a meal for one, to somehow receive nourishment until finally, finally inviting the beloved guest for dinner.