Sunny is co-owner of the Wildflower Kitchen, Chapel Hill’s health food restaurant.
The only thing that’s written about more than food is love. What we eat has the potential to nourish or destroy, to cheer or depress, to excite or to bore, and the way a person cooks is as distinctive as the way he or she writes, sings, dances, paints.
“Cooking is a very special kind of yoga,” says Elisabeth as she chops and chops, stirs the soup and tastes it, chops some more. It is the most basic and the most expansive creative art. It begins with a respect for food in its natural state, fruits and vegetables selected for their color, size, firmness or ripeness, cheese mellowed to a proper age, grains which are whole and uncorrupted. It includes whatever feels right and you can’t fool your body. One man’s meat is indeed the other’s poison. One friend eats only raw foods while another must avoid them altogether to protect a distressed stomach. Some eat meat to avoid illness; for others the eating of meat upsets a delicate balance of health. There is no diet for everyone.
Cooking for people is a joy and a responsibility; in a restaurant such as the Wildflower it involves accommodating a wide variety of tastes with minimal variance in an economic natural foods menu. It is impossible to please everyone, but the cooks make a dedicated effort, and it all seems worthwhile when a head pops into the busy kitchen to say thanks. For that’s what it’s all about. Cooking for people you love or cooking for the love of cooking is something else again. In this domain there is no end to creativity and experimentation. Herbs and spices yield their secrets to those who would know them, and the conscious cook discovers an affinity for certain combinations and learns that certain herbs and foods are made for each other, or so it would seem.
There are so many beautiful things to do with food. The best dishes are often studies in simplicity. A meal should be a composition in taste, texture, temperature, color, harmony. Cookbooks are a valuable aid in the learning process, but I prefer to use them as a source of information and ideas and make use instead of my imagination and the ingredients at hand. Each season offers its particular pleasures. Nothing surpasses Carolina’s summer garden, producing a variety of vegetables to be harvested young, barely cooked and seasoned with fresh herbs — my favorite being a pasta sauce when tomatoes, onions, and basil are all fragrantly ripe for the picking. We eat blackberries in cobblers, ice cream and yogurt, then move into peaches. It’s apple time now and we make applesauce with sassafras, fresh lemon balm and, of course, cinnamon. There are pickles and jams put up to be savored through the winter. Winters in the country are inseparable from the aroma of a soup simmering on the fire and bread in the oven. A simple task, baking bread is the most intimate relation between you and the food you eat. Mixing the ingredients gives you the choice of being a purist or not making the same loaf twice. Kneading the dough is active meditation: while it rises and bakes you’ve got a space in your day to do as you will, and the moment it comes from the oven with its incomparable fragrance you’ll join the ranks of happy bakers. Eat it, share it, give it away.
The reward is in the doing as well as the eating.