Saturday, January 24, 2009

This Is Your Brain On Cooking

To master a new language, you'd better get the bulk of your study in before the age of twelve; to become an athletic superstar or a genius inventor, the cut-off age is even earlier (and it helps if you're surrounded by the best schools and coaches and you are an Aquarius); but the master cooks I've uncovered all got their start after age thirty.

At twenty-seven, this puts me ahead of the game.

I wonder why the cooks in my admittedly-small sample set of three (Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, and Kathleen Flinn--the last of whom is not as internationally renowned as the first two, but I just finished reading her book and she fits into the "after thirty" category) all came to it later in life and managed to overcome the steep learning curve that separates introductory study from mastery.

The answer to the first question is pretty easy: most households are structured so that young people don't have to do a lot of cooking. One doesn't practice cooking the way one practices sports or music. Cooking well doesn't net many college scholarships. It makes sense that people might not seriously think about food and cooking until after they move out on their own, and might not seriously decide they need to learn how to cook until they have had a few years of weird/boring/badly prepared novice meals.

The learning curve thing is more interesting. The part of my brain which could learn a new language has all but disappeared; the brain-muscle connection that might have helped me become a star soccer player is long gone (let's face it; in my case, it was never there to begin with); but the part of my brain that knows how much ground coriander to add to a pan of steaming cauliflower and zucchini is just getting started.

Let's take it a step further. When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a ballerina. So did Kathleen Flinn and so did thousands of other little girls. Sure, you can say, it's because the tutus were pretty, but could it also have been because my brain was primed, at that moment, for that kind of learning?

Has anyone ever strapped electrodes to people's heads while they cooked a meal, and compared the parts of the brain that light up, and determined whether certain parts "light up better" in adults than they do in adolescents? (This would be difficult to do, perhaps, because to really see the inside of the brain one needs a MRI, and there's no room to get a mixing bowl and wooden spoon inside the MRI machine.)

This whole musing, incidentally, was spurred by a brief thought I had when walking to work the day after Obama was elected. I passed by one of the newspaper boxes and saw the headlines sticking out: Obama Ends War On Terror, etc. And, walking breezily past the newspapers under the bright-blue sky and smiling at how glad I was that Obama had managed to reverse all of Bush's executive orders in one morning, I thought--completely spontaneously--"if Obama can become President and do all of this on his first day, then I can become the best cook in the world."

And then I thought "why did I think cook? why didn't I think writer or worker or Ashtangi or any of my other identities or interests?"

Which led me to believe that my brain is somehow, at this point, primed for cooking; the way it was primed for ballet when I was eight years old.

It also led me to believe that I need to get myself into a for-real cooking class instead of the pretend one I've enrolled in for the next two months. ^__^

And there you go.

1 comment:

Gori Girl said...

They have little web thingies that fit on your head and can take very accurate readings now. (I interned at a developmental neuropsychology lab one winter.) It makes your hair kinda gross 'cause they need to put a gel on all the nodes to get a good connection, but you could cook with it on. :-) Just sayin'.

I think once you get your own kitchen, the desire to cook often sets in. I doubt there's more than culture to it, though - it'd be an odd evolutionary process that led to the desire to cook in someone who would be middle-aged or older in the Paleolithic era. Fun to think about, though.