Cooking Offers Control in an Uncontrollable World

Cooking means control.

Heritage continues to play a starring role in my exponentially growing interest in cooking and food. But lately, I’ve been thinking there’s another reason. Cooking is one of the last things in this word I actually have control over. I can’t solve the world’s problems, or really often my own, but I can damn sure can decide what I’m eating tonight.

So much of everything else in life is based on pure, dumb luck. Where you’re born, the family you’re born into, how much wealth your family has, the quality of the education and public services around you, the people who will come into your life, the job you get––all require a healthy dose of luck.

It’s not exclusively luck, mind you. But if life came with a list of ingredients plastered on the side like those unholy processed foods at the grocery store, it’d say something like “contains 90% dumb luck.”

I’m thinking about this today because the German Supreme Court just overturned the “Mietendeckel” or a rent cap designed to reign in drastically rising rent prices in Berlin. I’ll spare you the particulars. Basically, Berlin had been one of the last major European cities with affordable housing. You didn’t need to sell your soul to live here. You could be a freelance artist and make ends meet. It’s a reputation that’s drawn artistic types from all over the world to Berlin, making it the city that it is today.

The Mietendeckel was, as far as I can tell, ruled unconstitutional because it came from the local Berlin government instead of the federal government. Meaning, it was rejected not necessarily for its merits but for becoming law the wrong way. Imagine that logic in almost any other circumstance.

“Hey, what’re you doing on the varsity basketball team?”

“I grew over the summer, started playing with friends, and liked it.”

“Yes, but you didn’t play in little league, or in junior high, or in junior varsity! You must go back and start again!”

“I’m 17 years old.”

“Then you should do quite well in little league. Bye now!”

If you know anything about life in Germany, then you know that logic is just breathtakingly German. It’s a country that often runs (or doesn’t) off of an archaic, convoluted system of vaugely connected hoops to jump through that even native German speakers sometimes have a hard time making sense of. The decision is the epitome of having another meeting to solve the problem instead of just solving the problem.

Experts studying the issue since it was enacted late last year expected the Mietendeckel to get overturned, warning anyone whose rent was lowered to save that extra money and to be prepared to pay it back to the landlord. That’s right, with this decision, countless tenants across the city will be expected to pay their wildly profitable management agencies thousands of euros in back payments at the height of a third COVID wave.

Had the Mietendeckel stuck, my wife and I would’ve would’ve saved €4,320 in a year. Part of me thought that it would’ve been a steal to be paying “so little.” We live in an attractive building, recently refurbished, on a quiet street with wide sidewalks, with access to various forms of public transit, and a world’s worth of restaurants (for the normal times). Our building, we learned in an architecture tour last summer, was where rich people in the 19th century moved to get a little further away from the city center. (Though I like to remind people that we actually live in the “Hinterhaus” or rear building where the servants stayed.)

But I quickly remind myself that it would’ve only been a steal because I’ve been conditioned to think that basic niceties should be expensive. In reality, wide, safe sidewalks that are pleasant to walk along and look at shouldn’t come at a premium. They should be standard. Our system says that if you don’t have money, then sorry, life is going to suck a little to a lot more from the moment your foot hits the pavement outside your front door.

I know this is hardly a revolutionary realization. “World is unfair! Story at 11!” I’m not sure if a truly equitable society has never existed (which often seems to be the justification for what we’re left with).

“Capitalism sucks.”

“What’re you a communist? You got something better?”

“You mean do I know how to drastically shift the foundations of western society off of the top of my head? No, but…”

“Then shut up and spend $42,000 on this car so you can go make money for rich people!”

But the maddingly numbing combination of the pandemic, the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the murder of Daunte Wright, and the overturnning of the Mietendeckel just seems to be amplifying the world’s inequalities in one depressing fell swoop. To distract ourseles, we’re encouraged to just devote more time to work. Why not? Not like you can go anywhere anyway, so you might as well work more!

The rich get richer during the pandemic, because for some, that is the only way they can distract themselves. More work. But I worry about the longterm impact of it all. I feel like we’re increasingly living our lives to the tune of a lyric in one of my favorite Yiddish songs, “Mayn Rue Platz.” It’s a song about early 20th century immigrants heading to the United States with dreams and aspirations only to find themselves quickly thrown into the assembly line and made into a cog of a much larger machine that works for someone else, but not the immigrant.

The line goes:

“Nit zukh mikh vu di mirtn grinen,

Gefinst mikh dortn nit, mayn shats.

Vu lebns velkn bay mashinen,

Dortn iz mayn rue plats.”

In English:

“Don’t look for me where myrtles grow,

You will not find me there, my dear.

Where lives wither at the machines,

There is my resting place.”

So, what the hell does any of this have to do with cooking? It’s about control.

There’s an absurd amount of our lives and the world around us that we cannot control. But we can control what goes on in the kitchen and it increasingly feels like an oasis of sweet relief. In my kitchen, I can travel to central Mexico or back in time to the shtetl of my ancestors. It’s a notion I didn’t buy into until I started cooking regularly. I thought it was as silly as desperate tourism bureaus sending out links to cameras broadcasting a live stream of the beach, insisting it was almost like we were there.

Now I buy into it whole-heartedly. Perhaps my new outlook is simply a result of my never ending, pandemic-tinged circumstances. But the idea, at the moment anyway, seems reasonable enough. Of course, cooking hardly escapes the lottery of luck. After all, money still, unfortunately, plays an outsized role in how well you eat and what grocery stores you have access to, for starters.

Maybe I’m revealing my ignorance but I suspect most people can get some kind of vegetable oil, veggies, salt, and sauté them over heat. There are still staples that are, for now, affordable and can give anyone back a sense of control in their own lives. It’s amazing how much a simple condiment or spice can change a dish and alter my mindset. I hear the guitarrón mexicano when I splash some chipotle sauce on my homemade burrito, Dean Martin crooning when I mix some sun-dried tomatoes into my pasta, and the Greek bouzouki when I’m drizzling the tzatziki. I can control where I go.

What I’m reading

Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy's Food Culture by Matt Goulding has been some much-needed armchair travel with a healthy dose of food. I recently finished his first food memoir, Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan's Food Culture as well. That felt particulalry masochistic because I don’t think I’ll be able to get back to Japan any time soon, as much as it pains me to type. But a return visit to Italy seems somewhat plausible in the near future and now I’m going to sleep with dreams of pasta in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Where I’m published

In March of 2019, I traveled to Bardejov, Slovakia after learning that a specific line of my family came from there. That trip started me off into a deep exploration of my previously unexamined Ashkenazi Jewish heritage that I’m still digging through.

While there, I snapped photos at some Jewish cemeteries and two of them were selected to display at the Authenticity and Identity exhibition curated by Ori Z. Soltes. I wrote about that experience at Bourgeon. The exhibit is currently open at Adas Israel Congregaton in Washington D.C. and is running until May 15, 2021. You can learn more here and visit the virtual gallery if you don’t happen to be in the DC area.

What I’m cooking

Okay, I know this isn’t the sexiest food pic. But what if I told you I rushed my obligatory food pic because I was too eager to dive in? I got the idea for this dish of baked apples stuffed with a mix of lentils, carrots, celery, and a splash of matzo meal from Irina Georgescu’s Carpathia cookbook on Romanian cuisine. I knew you could stuff things like tomatoes, peppers, and zuchinnis, but it never occurred to me to do so with my favorite fruit. Irina opened up a whole new world to me.

Because my baked apple photo came out a little on the brown side, I feel obligated to share at least one professional food photo to tease some recipes that will be published shortly at The Nosher. The above is aranygaluska. You probably know it as monkey bread and I recently discovered that my great-grandmother Bertha Stern used to make it for my father. So, into my aresnal of heritage recipes it went!

This weekend, I’ll be making my first noodle kugel courtesy of Jake Cohen’s recently published Jew-ish cookbook. Hopefully I can find some corn flakes…