29.1.08

Hands-on Cooking

Eyes may be considered the windows to the soul, but a person’s hands speak volumes about them. As much as our fingerprints are unique, our hands have their own stories to tell. A baby’s fingers are fat and new, having not yet experienced much of the world. And then there are the hands of a grandparent: darkened liver spots, wrinkly knuckles that maintain their shape long after the skin has been moved around, and the hard work they have done and wisdom they have gained is easily recognized in the flesh surrounding long fingers and bones that have withstood so many years gone by. I remember my grandmother’s finger had swollen up around her engagement ring, making permanent creases in the flesh that bespoke the 63 years that she and my grandfather celebrated of their marriage before she passed away. And as my other grandmother fights the Parkinson’s disease that is slowly changing both her mind and her body, her fingers grow thinner, scars record the falls she takes much more frequently, and she now must wear her wedding ring on her middle finger.


When I lived in Monterey, California for two years, I was an avid attendee of the year-round farmer’s market on Tuesdays. There was a man there, surely in his 70s, who put up a folding table every week and sold beautiful, earth-covered mushrooms. His hands were gnarled, his knuckles swollen and fingers shortened from years of digging through the dirt to pick the small crop of mushrooms he grew on the land, and noble trade, he had inherited from his family. After picking out the basket I wanted, he would load them into a small paper lunch sack, set the sack down, then grasp my small hands in his large ones, look into my eyes and say, “Thank you, miss.” I bought mushrooms every week, even if I still had a bag left over from the previous one (and not just because he called me “miss,” which I also loved).

It’s easy to see evidence of the hard, physical labor of the Crush on the hands of the Winemaker I work with. During the most intense period of the Crush, the grape juice stains on your hands can no longer be washed out, and the acidity of the juice begins to dry out and crack your skin. When I asked him about his hands once, he smiled and called them “alligator hands,” but to me, they looked like the hands of someone who works hard, loves what he does, and has spent so much time touching the grapes and the grape must, doing the physical labor of the work, and putting a bit of himself into making good wine that it had left deep stains on the creases of his hands. During my time there, my own fingers began to develop purple stains in some of the creases of the knuckles, and it gave me a deep sense of satisfaction and gratification– the kind that can only be gained through accomplishing hard work. In this part of the wine industry, there is even a “purple hand award” – an acknowledgment that you made it through that most grueling period of harvest and have become part of a far-ranging team that understands just how much physical labor, long hours and care goes into making a glass of wine.


LB once made a comment about how he wasn’t sure he wanted to buy food from someone that had stains on their hands. I disagreed and immediately brought him to the farmer’s market - to the booths where just that morning, farmers had been digging in the ground, pulling up the super-sweet carrots – small particles of dirt still clinging to the skin of both vegetable and farmer. Farmers selling raspberries had juice stains on their palms and evidence of the prickly stems of the berries etched into the backs of their tanned hands. Every hand told the story of both the farmer and the food they were selling. None of the fruits or vegetables had been touched by cold, mechanized steel; only hands, loving and caring enough to make providing sustenance to others a profession, had ever touched them. After that, LB changed his mind and now actively seeks out farmers with hands that have stories to tell.

(That's an Oregon black truffle in his hands...)

Our hands are also a big part of how we cook. Touching food brings a certain sense of intimacy with it, just as touching the hands of another human does. Lovers intertwine fingers as a forthright show of affection and a gentle brushing of hands or fingers, one could not quite be construed as a mistake, often portrays a budding interest. More than just the wielding of a knife or spoon, when you touch the food you’re preparing, you transfer some part of yourself and your intuition into the dish. I heard a quote recently about how food that is only touched by machines is “emotionally sterile,” and I have to agree.

Cooking is done as much by emotion and four other senses as it is by taste. Plunging your finger into the flesh of a rare steak will tell you as much about its texture as it does the flesh between your thumb and forefinger. Good bread requires an understanding of the dough and kneading slowly transforms it from lumpy and incongruent to smooth and elastic. Marinades don’t seep as deeply into food when simply sprinkled above it as they are when they are rubbed into all the nooks and crannies. A good avocado can only be identified by a gentle squeeze, recognizing the right amount of give in the tender flesh of the fruit (but never, ever squeeze a tomato!). And if you make something with love, I think it shows - even if it doesn't come out perfectly.

As I've said before, cooking is one way I show people that I care about them, appreciate them or want to make them happy, and I never cook a meal without touching some part of my food...of course there is the chopping of vegetables by hand, but also tossing dressings into the leaves of salads, rubbing butter or olive oil into the skin of a chicken that will be roasted to crispy perfection (unless you have issues like I do with roasted chicken), forming tender patties of homemade sausage, grabbing handfuls or pinches of salt for pasta water, or sprinkling spices over a dish. I like to think that the people that I cook for can taste the love and work I put into each dish, whether they are friends or family or house guests. But even if they can’t or don’t, when I wash my hands for the final time, I get that deep sense of satisfaction that I made something for them with my bare hands – from picking out the ingredients, to transforming them into something delicious (well, one hopes), and finally, presenting it to them. And I hope that intuitively, if not consciously, they can read the story my hands are telling them.

7 comments from you:

glutenfreeforgood said...

Beautiful sentiments! And not only do you get pleasure from the art of creating a meal with your hands for someone you care about, the recipient gets that lovely energy you've woven into the food. I love the thought of that! Thanks for the reminder.
Melissa

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

It's always seemed wrong to me Michelle when I've come across people who love to cook but don't want to touch the food. Touch is such an under-appreciated sense.
For me it was always my mother's hands I found fascinating. Her veins always seemed so large. My own hands now have history. A u-shaped scar on my thumb cut when the bottom bowl of a stack broke as I picked them up. A white pucker scar from hot oatmeal.
Hands do tell a story.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Great post and so true. I think food cooked with love tastes better, even if it doesn't turn out perfect.

I know that I've never enjoyed eating food that I've made when unhappy or angry about something. It seems to seap into the flavour.

Michelle said...

Hi Melissa, Thanks - it's so true!

Hi Tanna, me too - there's a certain celebrity chef that never touches any of the food she's making (aside from chopping) and it drives me crazy! I've got my own set of scars too, but that's what gives us character, right?!

Hi Amanda, Thanks. I think so too. It's like that movie, Like water for Chocolate!

vlb5757 said...

Michelle-you say everything that most of us can't put into words but see with our eyes and feel with our hearts.

Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

I love mixing various doughs by hand. (I just didn't know for so many years that wheat and egg mixes didn't make EVERYONE'S hands itchy. Ha ha.) And I love looking at and touching other people's hands, as well--feeling the texture of what they do with their lives played out in their palms and fingers.

Tea said...

How gorgeous, Michelle. Thank you!