Why do I put so much effort into cooking when I’m at the cottage? Isn’t getting away supposed to be about taking it easy?
Recently, for a story about cooking shows, I interviewed chefs who had competed on either Top Chef or MasterChef. We kept returning to the subject of ego — the need to be number one. Cooking on television is a lot of pressure. But, maybe because I cooked professionally for many years and all my bosses had told me that it was a team effort, I had never seen cooking as competitive.
But the day after filing my story, I began to plan my menu for a visit to a friend’s cottage near Uxbridge. And as I dismissed a number of dishes that, despite being sufficiently delicious, lacked a certain “wow factor,” I realized how much my ego was invested in food.
Cottage life is not something that I was born into. Growing up, I didn’t know from summer getaways; I didn’t experience the joys of spending lazy days swaying in a hammock, sometimes getting up to add more charcoal to a barbecue filled with pork shoulder, waiting for the fat to melt into a puddle and the flesh to become crisp.
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And while I’m new to this stuff, I try to be a good guest the only way I know how: by cooking (and cleaning up afterwards).
My friends are all into food as an activity. So meal planning at the cottage is sort of an anti-chore wheel, in that each participant is eager to be assigned the biggest task: Saturday dinner. This year, thinking about what I might want to cook, I volunteer for breakfast or lunch duty. Even though my rationale is crystal clear — cook for the crowd early in the day, when you’re at your peak and your audience’s appetite hasn’t been whittled away by all the drinking and snacking — it doesn’t occur to me how strategic and performative I’m being.
The lunch I’m considering is a Thai street food called Ba Mii Tom Yam Muu Haeng. A bowl of flour noodles is tossed with roast chili, vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce, and served with a salad bar’s worth of condiments to jack it up. The dish can be adapted to be served cold, making it even better on a hot summer afternoon. And the garnishes — roast peanuts, crispy garlic, fried pork, pickled mustard leaves, cilantro, chili powder, crackling, green beans, scallions — deliver the kind of vibrancy that I need to “win” lunch. Not that it’s a competition.
I also volunteer to cook breakfast. Earlier in the week, I’d smoked some brisket, wrapped it in plastic, and, with no designs on its use, tossed it in the freezer. While shaving one morning, it occurs to me that the brisket would work perfectly as a breakfast. I can mount it, sliced and fried, on fresh tortillas, maybe with scrambled eggs or cheese. It’ll be a labour-intensive breakfast. But worth it.
I used to host dinner parties every week, but I don’t anymore — so maybe the cottage is my chance to show off. Or maybe because I don’t have the financial resources to buy a bunch of crowd-pleasing steaks, I feel the need to compensate with technique. It’s possible that it’s all about ego.
But I think there’s something else at play.
Restaurants can be great. But, more often than not, they are crowded, expensive, rushed, inconvenient, and disappointing. During these weekend feasts at the cottage, the meals are always more enjoyable than dinners I eat with the same friends at restaurants.
We eat gradually, not out of any pretense of coursing but merely to keep pace with the meats and vegetables as they come off the grill. When comfort cannot be fully realized in our deck chairs, we move to the sofas and languidly extend the dessert hour.
Though we eat like royalty, our food costs are a tenth of what we would otherwise spend eating out. No one brings us a cheque. No one tells us that they need our table for a 9 p.m. reservation. Full to bursting, we lounge with a sense of freedom not possible when hungry diners are hangrily eying your table and trying to guilt you into vacating as soon as possible.
Have you ever binged some eight-episode Netflix show and wished that it had been 12 episodes instead? That’s cottage cooking.
I shouldn’t need to impress these people. They’re my friends, not a dissertation committee. I put in the extra effort because there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to take part in this lifestyle, and I want to stretch it out as long as possible.
Cooking is a pleasure that I get to enjoy most days. But it is usually accompanied by a ticking clock: I still have to juggle professional and other household responsibilities. There’s always an interview to transcribe and laundry to fold; I have to consider my wife’s post-work appetite, too.
At the cottage, though, cooking should be seen as, above all else, an opportunity to spend time preparing a meal without those pressures. Maybe it’s pedestrian that, in my obligation-free fantasy world, I still want to perform kitchen labour. But it’s my idea of heaven. If there were no corn to be shucked in the afterlife, what would we do with eternity?