I think I can easily say I enjoy cooking as much as any of my other creative pursuits. Maybe it's the combination of colors (red onion, green spinach, the bright orange of a ripe pepper), or maybe I just love to eat!
Whatever the reason, I've certainly spent quality time in the kitchen, and like many of my interests, cooking seems to overlap everything else I do. It's also taught me some important lessons not just about food preparation, but about life in general (e.g., never read while stirring béchamel sauce; if the pot won't boil it means the stove isn't turned on; pets are your best friends for cleaning broken eggs off the floor). Other handy tips I've learned include:
- Kitchen space, writing space--it's all sacred space. For that reason I like to keep my work areas clean, uncluttered, and a pleasant place to be. The less time I have to spend searching for the right spoon or pen, the more time I have to create.
- Fresh ingredients. Although frozen food can be a wonderful resource on the nights I'm late coming home from work or just don't have time to run to the store, nothing beats fresh. It's the same with writing and painting: the best ideas are the fresh ones.
- Too much (or not enough) salt, sugar, and spice? A bland stew is boring to eat. Overly-spiced and it's inedible. When it comes to our creativity, not enough seasoning turns the work into a big yawn, but add too much and the story or painting becomes scattered, messy, and difficult to pull together.
- Use the right tools. Whether I'm cooking or writing I like to keep my utensils simple: cast iron pans, a few wooden spoons, a really good spatula. For my writing I prefer a fountain pen, a legal pad, and my Alphasmart. Once I have a complete draft I clean it up on Word. That's it.
- Do you really need a lettuce spinner? Depends on how much lettuce you eat! Seriously, though, I've never owned a spinner but I can see its usefulness. Every now and then we need a special gadget to make our work easier and fun. Maybe it's a set of glitter gel pens, or an ultra-expensive watercolor brush. Splurge.
- Shake up the recipe books. I own one cookbook: Sunset Menus and Recipes for Vegetarian Cooking. I bought it years ago while I was living in San Francisco, and the only reason I keep it is purely sentimental. It reminds me of my days walking home up Market Street, then catching the cable car to go grocery shopping. Once upon a time it did teach me how to cook vegetarian meals, but since then I've modified, added, and changed just about every recipe in the book. It's the same with how-to-write books. Read them, then adapt them to suit your own needs and style. Better yet, put all your new ideas and methods into your own how-to book!
- Fusion. There's nothing tastier to me than a dinner that includes more than one cultural influence: Thai burritos, or green chili quiche. My fusion tastes extend to my reading and writing, too. "Mixed genre" and "mixed medium" are two of my favorite terms. A mystery with romance elements; a pen and ink drawing on a collaged background and highlighted with watercolor--the possibilities are endless.
- Bake at 350 degrees for forty-five minutes. There's a reason why you're not supposed to open the oven door while baking a cake. Sometimes you do have to follow the rules, especially when it comes to submitting work for publication: clean, double-spaced manuscript pages; a three-paragraph synopsis; self-addressed envelopes for return or reply. Read publisher's guidelines and follow to the letter!
- Keep a sharp knife for editing. I'm terrified of knives. They scare me more than I can say. And yet I've learned the hard way that a blunt knife is one of the most dangerous things in the kitchen. My manuscripts benefit from bravery and a sharp pair of scissors, too.
- Leftovers. Save your snippets of dialogue, character bio, setting, or unused scenes. They can either be recycled into a new manuscript, or stand alone as a poem or a piece of "flash fiction." Every now and then, though, go through your files and see what's gone past it's "shelf-life." Getting rid of the old makes way for the new.
- Too many cooks can spoil the broth. Some people can't stand mayonnaise. Others complain because you added cloves to the apple pie. And there's always somebody who will insist you absolutely MUST peel mushrooms before adding them to a sauté. Listen attentively, be polite, then see what works and what you need to ignore. Writer's groups, beta readers, your next door neighbor--everybody has an opinion. At the end of the day, only you know what's best for your manuscript.
- Comfort food feeds the soul. Macaroni cheese; creamy mashed potatoes; endless spaghetti plates; bean soup on a cold day--sometimes old-fashioned is so much better than nouvelle. As much as I enjoy experimental literary fiction and an unconventional narrative, there are days when I need to read and/or write solid, strong, themed fiction that makes me fall in love with my craft all over again. (Hint: re-reading Velda Johnston's Masquerade in Venice never disappoints.)
Tip of the Day: What's a favorite recipe you haven't made in a long time? Examine the reasons for neglecting it: maybe you haven't had the time to spend on the required preparation or to shop at specialty stores for exotic ingredients. Or maybe the needed items are just too expensive, hard to find, and/or disliked by the people you're cooking for. Decide to make it anyway; schedule in a day for shopping and cooking, then invite friends in to share the finished results. While you're eating and socializing, here's a topic for conversation: what other creative projects have you put on hold? Brainstorm ways to get cooking again!