Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
Today is gonna be a little different, and it’s gonna be a long one- because it’s going to be my story.
I tend to drop a lot of little tidbits about my life and experience throughout the blog, especially as the subject matter calls for. It makes a good story- good stories are easier to remember, and that’s why the lessons in them stick.
It’s why I love stories. It’s why I memorize them, and retell them, and share my own- because knowledge is something that, so long as you remember it, can never be taken from you.
Words have power. Stories magnify that power.
A Love Of Letters
My love of words and stories began very young. Both of my parents were avid readers, as were my sisters, of whom I’m the middle child. My dad once told me about the semester of college where he read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit cover-to-cover in the space of a few months… and consequently nearly flunked out. When my little sister was in high school, my mother got a degree in Library Science and became a children’s librarian.
Seriously, read for yourself, and read to your kids. It will do them (and you) no end of good. You always have time.
My first books were Dr. Suess and a series of abridged, slightly sanitized renditions of classic literature called the “Great Illustrated Classics.” A few of my favorites were “Treasure Island,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”, and other high adventure, swashbuckling stories.
I got picked on a lot in school, of course- I was heavyset, had glasses, braces, and a speech impediment. Stories took me out of that world, and put me in new ones. It wasn’t long before I decided to start trying to create a few of my own.
After all, pens don’t stutter.
By the time I was in high school I was writing short fiction stories, but mostly poetry. In high school, I had a number of English teachers, but the best was a man by the name of Peter Murphy. He pulled no punches when it came to our work, and would give us strict rules to follow:
“Tell a secret.”
“Tell a lie.”
“Pretend you have to pay your reader a quarter for every word you write.”
“If a word feels useless, it is. Get rid of it.”
I remember one particular class where we were going over the work of an older poet whose name I’ve forgotten. All I remember is that the rest of the class, when asked, praised the work and discussed what they liked about it- and to me it all felt utterly flacid. It was not compelling or enjoyable, it sounded like it was written by a stereotypical pre-teen going through a phase.
When my turn came to speak, I said so. “What the hell are you all reading? This is absolute garbage. If this shit can get published, anyone can.” The class argued, howled, and waved it off until the bell rang. As I packed up to leave, Mr. Murphy called me to his desk. “Great… here it comes.” I thought.
Mr. Murphy looked at me a moment, then got up and opened up his lunchbox. He took out a box of apple juice and handed it to me.
“You’re too young for me to buy you a drink, Matt. Good work.”
Words have power. When you write, when you speak, and when you read, you interact with that power. Literacy is a way of watching that power work. You can pick words that seem to mean the same thing, but conjure up different imagery. Reading a news article, you can get past “the story” and find the story that the writer is trying to tell- or convince you of.
Words reveal intention.
Words reveal agenda.
Words build your reality, based on who is telling the story.
They inspire, they hurt, they rally, and they poison.
Fun facts: The famous “magic” word “Abracadabra” is supposedly derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “I create what I speak,” and numerous faiths have beliefs or superstitions involving the power of one’s name, varying from the ability to curse a person, control them, or render them immortal.
Really makes you think a bit when someone gets your name wrong at the coffee shop, doesn’t it?
A Love Of Food
I was always a pretty fat kid.
Besides being bookish, my family were always gourmands. Regular family dinner was a thing, and entertaining at the house was always an occasion. My mother did her best to get us to eat healthier- she was always conscious of that sort of thing, and my father loved grilling and stick-to-your-ribs, meat-and-potatoes classics.
They were members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, as my grandfather had been, and enjoyed going out to eat as much as they cooked. Holidays and special occasions centered on it, particularly around my grandmothers giant dining room table.
Food for me was therefore always a source of comfort. It meant home, family, and warm fuzzies. A bookish, bullied kid that didn’t get out much and needed a lot of comfort? That’s a classic recipe for an overweight kid.
Similarly, surrounded as I was by such a love of food, I was bound to pick cooking up myself. Whether it was learning how to make a perfectly fluffy microwave egg from my dad (the trick was melting the butter in the bowl first. Cracking the cold eggs directly in hardened the butter, careful whisking meant the bowl would stay non-stick), or my very first time baking, making hamantaschen with my mother at 6 years old, the kitchen just always felt like the most comfortable place to be. Years later, I’d be talking with my friend Karen in the casino bakeshop after a frustrating morning.
“I like the kitchen because, unlike other places, everything in the kitchen makes sense. Everything has a use, there’s rules to follow, and a list of tasks every day. You do your job, you do it right, and follow the rules, you ‘win.’”
Over my life, my relationship with food changed as I did- especially in terms of my age, my tastes, and my health. In the quest to lose weight, I found that I no longer craved the saccharine-sweet things I used to enjoy without thinking. I wanted things fresh and green more, rather than slipped into a sandwich somewhere beneath a pile of meat and cheese.
One friend of mine even commented that, prior to me losing weight, he hated my baking because it was too sweet to even be enjoyable. Now that my tastes had changed, everything I made was so much better and much more natural.
I became more selective about the food I ate as well- if I was going to have to exercise later, I wasn’t going to waste that effort on mediocre crap. I was going to eat the food I LOVED, and that tasted REALLY FREAKING GOOD. As the old Yiddish saying says, “If you’re going to eat pork, eat the really expensive kind and get it all over your beard.” Unfortunately, “food guilt” and “food regret” also tended to run in my family. It took a full-on lifestyle shift to break it, but it happened.
My attending culinary school happened as a natural extension of all this too- feeding the people on my rescue squad, the support of others, and the right words at the right time. Sometimes that's all you need to make a big decision seem simple.
Food is just food, and it’s also never just food.
It is sustenance, and it is history.
If the saying is “you are what you eat,” then the inverse is true too- “You eat what you are.”
When we cook, a part of us always slips into what we are making- even if it’s not our recipe.
Food is communication, and cooking is one more way we tell our story.
A Love of Service
There’s no glossing over this one, and no real way to make it sound less cheesy or sappy. I’ve tried. So here’s the truth of it-
I love helping other people.
I insist that it is possible to enjoy being of service without be servile or abasing oneself. When I was growing up, I was in the Boy Scouts. They have caught quite a bit of flack in recent years- and some of it rightly so in my opinion- but the basis of the program as communicated in the Scout Oath and Law is something that I think should be available to everyone.
I do believe that serving and helping others IS humbling, but perhaps not in the way most people think. It is humbling in that, by recognizing others, you recognize your own smallness in the world- and if you do it right, your own greatness. By keeping your eyes and ears open, you can see just how much impact a simple act of kindness and service can have.
“All streams flow to the sea
Eventually, even if you accomplish every single goal you set for yourself and achieve all your hopes and desires- you will always need something greater to aspire to, or to be apart of. If working in kitchens, feeding others, and helping out others has taught me anything, it is that achieving my goals and helping others is not mutually exclusive.
By recognizing yourself as part of the world, you join with it, aid it, and become attached to something even greater. “No man is an island,” as the poem says- imagine being able to see yourself as part of all the islands scattered in the sea. No less unique or important, but part of something greater.
So, Why Did I Write All This?
A number of reasons really. It could have just been storytime in my head, or I might have just wanted to get this all straight for myself.
Really though, I think I wanted to set out my thesis and mission for why I write this blog.
In a lot of ways, this blog is a combination of three things I love- Cooking, Writing, and Service. Cooking and Writing are rather obvious- I DO write primarily about food, cooking, and the culinary life.
That last one, however- Service- is what really gives this blog meaning, and why I keep writing it.
Since I started writing and trying to document my thoughts and ideas about living the life of a professional cook, I knew I was wandering through very well-explored territory. There is no shortage of books that discuss the life I live or why from a number of different points of view. All the same, however, I felt that I could offer something a little different and hopefully useful.
See, most of the writers who discuss their lives in the kitchen that I’ve read give it an air of “noble toil” and “a labor of love.” Some, including a few of my heroes, point to a life of failed relationships, substance abuse, or other unhealthy habits as “sacrifice” and “the price of doing what you love.”
I say, “BULLSHIT.”
I think it is possible to have a happy and successful life in the kitchen without giving way to poor health and bad behavior. I think it’s possible to treasure your relationship with food without letting it dominate every part of your world.
I’m determined to be proof-positive, to document that proof here, and to find other like-minded culinarians who feel the same.
The ones who want the macho, scar-comparing, bro culture to die.
The ones who treasure themselves and other cooks as artists and athletes in service to the greater world.
The ones who know that pushing our field forward involves keeping our eyes on the present, and learning from the past.
For those culinarians and professionals out there, I want them to know that they aren’t alone, and it’s not impossible.
For just the casual readers and food-lovers out there, I want to share a new world with them. The kind they might not get elsewhere, especially not from television shows and movies that present the professional kitchen as a hellscape. I want them to hear the stories of the people who serve them. I want to change and improve their relationship with food, with dining, and with themselves.
I want them to see that there is something to this work that can improve their own lives.
That’s what this blog is for- to tell that story.
It’s a good thing I’m a storyteller.
I’ve got some crazy shit to tell you.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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