The secret ingredient in great cooking is love. Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you. They cook with love. With heart. With soul. With feeling. With passion. By now, these phrases are such well-worn clichés, they’ve all but lost their meaning. (Just try getting through an episode of Top Chef without a contestant or judge expounding on the tired trope.)
But tired though it may be, it’s the truth. In order to cook well, you have to love it. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we’ve been thinking about love and food. Cooking with love. Eating food prepared with love.
Loving eating food that’s lovingly prepared. Love, love, love. Food, food, food.
Oh, and throw sex into that mix too.
In this week’s Food Issue, we explore them all: Food, love and sex. We’ve asked chefs about the undeniable and forever linked relationship the three things share. We hear the tale of how cooking saved one chef’s life, and pulled him from the edge of despair. And we try to figure out, once and for all, whether or not oysters actually do help you fuck like a champ. Enjoy.
How cooking pulled me from the brink of absolute despair and literally saved my life.
By Tim McGinnis
A month after I lost my job and four days before Christmas, my wife decided to leave me. I was a wreck. As I look back on that sad span of time, I realize that I was having what most people would describe as a nervous breakdown. I was drinking ungodly amounts of booze—so much beer, in fact, that I actually increased the GDP of Belgium by four-percent; I got a thank-you letter from their president! I was crying all night, lying in bed for hours during the day paralyzed with depression, and searching for the reasons she gave up on us after eight years.
I’ve never been a dramatic person. I prefer easygoing tranquility to high school melodrama. I never contemplated suicide in my life, but when I tell you that I wanted to die, I did. I was scaring myself.
A group of friends staged what can only be called a suicide watch for a few days. (For that I am forever thankful.) In particular, a young married couple I’ve been friends with for a long time drove me to central Pennsylvania and convinced me that leaving the ghosts behind for a while would be therapeutic. I’d also be able to avoid going home for the holidays to face those inevitable questions that would make me cringe the way “2 Girls 1 Cup” did: “How’s the wife? And the job is good, yeah?”
So I holed up with them. We drank and cooked. You see, the three of us are chefs. And when chefs are down, they do what they are good at: cook, eat and drink; or drink, eat and cook; or drink, drink and drink. (Actually, chefs do that when they aren’t down, too.) So I burdened the young couple and their family this past Christmas with my miserable self and cooked myself out of a crisis.
Two days before Christmas, I woke up to the sound of hunters in my friends’ kitchen. I made my way downstairs, my eyes looking like two piss holes in the snow after the 12 or so beers I drank the night before. The 50 pounds of venison from their hunt this year was ground and ready to be formed into links. So we got to it, making sausage as we broke one another’s balls and self-deprecated. (It was a literal and figurative sausage party.
There was something very primal and therapeutic about grinding the flesh of an animal my friend had shot. We gathered around our kill as tribesmen once did and made it into food—food that would feed and nourish us and our families. It made me feel like a whole man rather than the broken one my wife had left in her wake. I could feel my testicles start to grow back.
The following day, Christmas Eve, my hosts left to finish some last-minute holiday shopping. I was alone for the first time in three days. A big believer in the “idle hands” adage, I opened a bottle of wine and tasked myself with prepping for Christmas dinner. Until that night, motivation and inspiration had been rare commodities, so I turned to an old friend for help. The book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman is a much-used culinary bible in my kitchen. I sat down and paged through my copy hoping something would pop out and push me to create.
I flipped through the book and stopped dead on duck confit. I love old-school techniques. I’m perpetually inspired by terrine recipes, cheese making, smoking and, of course, sausage making. There is a real sense of love, history and family in food like that. I applied the confit method to turkey legs. I broke down the turkey, first separating the legs from the body at the hip joint; I then slid my knife down each side of the breast bone and removed the breasts, then the wings at their joint. I moved quickly and efficiently. It felt like meditation. Fully concentrating on the task at hand, I released all negative emotion into the ether.
I brined the breasts in a simple salt/sugar water solution and rubbed the legs and wings with salt, studded them with garlic and bay leaf. Afterward, I toasted and ground a handful of cloves and rubbed that on the legs and wings, too. I felt happy, inspired and lighter around the shoulders. I then realized, quite to my surprise, that I had been whistling while I worked, a spontaneous bout of happiness I no longer thought was possible just a few short days before. Small victories.
The skills I’ve learned over a life of cooking were acting as a ladder I could climb to get out of the hole I was in. I could see a light. So I kept climbing.
Even though I didn’t want to see my family out of fear of a panic attack, I still missed them. Growing up in the coal patches of Schuylkill County, I’m used to certain sensibilities: eating with your elbows on the table, hunting apparel worn when not hunting, and lots of Yuengling Lager. There is one coal cracker tradition that is dear to me—Christmas Eve Boilo, a potent elixir made of citrus, spices and whiskey simmered slow and low atop the stove of every kitchen from Deer Lake to East Stroudsburg during the holidays. That night, I got a hold of my uncle and aunt and got their time-tested recipe. The Boilo warmed the cockles of my weary heart and even though I wasn’t home for the holiday, I felt closer to my family.
Then I got to work on some stuffing.
On Sunday, we showed up to Adsum after brunch unannounced to take some photos of Chef Matt Levin, who had participated in a survey we'd done in our Food & Drink Issue. He happily obliged. But then we lost his answers. Here they are.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace