Why cook anyway?


IMG_4510I’ve often written about the strange sense I occasionally get that when I’m doing something simple like using a builder’s trowel, building a wooden frame or most particularly when I’m gardening or cooking; I feel that I’m channelling something or someone. I absolutely don’t mean this in any supernatural sense – this isn’t about ‘ghosts’, but it is about the sheer complexity of our inner lives. I’m aware that when I ask the simple question “Why cook anyway?” there’s a way of answering it directly –

  • I cook because I really like eating good food’ but we’re too hard up to eat in restaurants.
  • I cook because I like to determine the meals I eat and the ingredients in them because it’s better for me (us) and the world if we do.
  • I cook because nothing draws people closer than eating together and cooking is a way of showing love for them.
  • I cook because we have the allotment and we grow most of our own vegetables.

But none of those simple answers account for the uncanny sense of channeling that sometimes comes with kneading dough, or taking something out of the oven. On the allotment it might come with the smell of the earth or the sound of a robin. I remember it clearly one day in winter when I was laying a hedge with Chubby Ball. _1080661

Sometimes when I cook it feels like a meditation, a wordless reflection whose content could never be expressed except in the act of cooking, and sometimes I even feel as if I’m reaching out towards a memory – especially a memory of my mother.


It would be easy to think of the Potwell Inn as a simple idea – a “two up two down” kind of conceptual building that houses a “happy place”. But what if I pushed at the boundaries a bit and revealed that the Potwell Inn is actually a very old, very large building with many rooms and such a long history that some parts have become derelict and some rooms have not been opened in decades?

Yesterday I was reading Christopher Bollas’ book “The Shadow of the Object”, and I came across this passage.



…. I have termed the early mother a ‘transformational object’ and the adult’s search for transformation constitutes in some respects a memory of this early relationship.  There are other memories of this period of our life, such as aesthetic experience when a person feels uncannily embraced by an object.

IMG_4763When I read those words I was seized by the memory of an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’ late work that we saw in Somerset that absolutely floored me because one of the glass display cabinets contained some objects deeply familiar from my childhood. I’m not adding a photo here because they all seem to be copyrighted but if you Google “Bourgeois the empty house” you’ll find them all.

My mother was a dressmaker and the only objects I have from her life are associated with her craft. What’s most powerful is the way in which these three objects, a pincushion with needles and pins, a thimble, and a rolling device for marking through a paper pattern into fabric bear within themselves an imprint of her whole being. They aren’t just tools, they embed her – prickly, spiky and absorbed in her work. The sound of the sewing machine was the sound of my childhood.

Stumbling on the Bourgeois sculpture was a shock, It was heavy with what Bollas calls “the unthought known”. And to get back to the original question “why cook anyway?” is it any surprise that cooking, gardening and sewing are all activities filled with the unthought knowns of my earliest infant years?  When I’m bearing experiences that pre-date any form of language and are inflected into actions, I am ‘uncannily embraced’.


When we first discovered that we were expecting our first child I went into a very strange state, having no vocabulary to express what I was feeling.  So I cooked.  I cooked meatballs in tomato sauce, I’ll never forget it, and I poured all my feelings of confusion into that one dish. As I brought it to the table, Madame who by this time had become quite concerned that I wouldn’t come out of the tiny galley-like kitchen to talk about it was giving me one of her looks. The whole dish – it was pyrex – slipped from my fingers and smashed into a thousand pieces on the floor – meatballs, sauce and glass. Looking back forty years we can laugh at the absurdity of it all, but it was cooking as I’ve never done it before or since.





Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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