What lentils and onions taught me about relationships

Eve Fairbanks
June 2
Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg and Nairobi, is at work on a book about South Africa.

Improves with time. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

I started cooking Indian lentil soups because I was poor. Like many things you do by force of necessity, though, it made me understand far more than I’d anticipated. It turns out there’s nothing like cooking an Indian lentil soup to teach you about patience, and what David Brooks calls “the blooming virtues.”

When I started cooking them, dals of all forms, I was always startled by how small a quantity of spices the recipes called for: a quarter teaspoon cinnamon, two single cloves. I didn’t trust my recipes. I’d sniff the little heap of spices as I mixed them: not too potent, for such a lot of beans. I’d double the quantities. I’d taste the soup early, a few minutes after everything went in the pot. Bland. Despairing, I’d fry a second batch of garlic, throw in loads more powders straight from the boxes.

Inevitably, I’d end up over-spicing the thing. It seemed to take a while for the spices to come into themselves, to find their character. I sought wisdom from two cooking-science guys (as they call themselves), Guy Crosby of America’s Test Kitchen and Harold McGee, author of “The Curious Cook.” What appeared to be a paradox — why would flavor strengthen over time? Don’t time and heat make everything fade? — turned out to be an incontrovertible truth of the kitchen. The oils in spice particles are drawn out by the oils in the soup. They bloom: This is the true word cooks use for the process by which flavor must be awakened. “The larger the particles,” McGee said, “the longer it takes.” Some flavors turn into others in combination: Turmeric and black pepper together produce something very different, the beauty behind curry powder. In the kitchen, many things become more powerful as we break them down, as we marry them to new things. And although we may observe this work in the kitchen, we forget how true it is in our lives.

I had a roommate in college who wrote a poem to her lover about the unexpected emotion she’d felt when they once cooked onions together: Something stinging and tear-inducing had transfigured, astonishingly, to something sugar-sweet. (The onion’s pungency is a defense against attack, my cooking-science guys explained. When it’s heated, the harshness melts away, letting the subtle — and ultimately stable — sugars show.) She was reminded of the inextricable twinning of joy and pain in love, and how a difficult love can transform, so strangely, to one comforting and soft. The difficulty had always had the possibility of sweetness in it. In the end, “pungent onions produce the most flavorful sauces,” Crosby said. Perhaps love has to start difficult in order to give way.

A lot has been written about why we love cooking at this moment in our culture. We devour cooking shows, we comb food blogs, we try pickling and souffle-ing and sous-vide and techniques previously left to chefs listed in the Michelin. There’s the idea that we’ve lost our connection to nature, or that food has become our era’s fine art. (“Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture,” William Deresiewicz griped.)

Those explanations make sense. But I also think, by cooking, we’re able to explore concepts of transfiguration and change that our culture doesn’t really honor in other arenas. When we’re young, we’re encouraged to “find our passion,” as if we’ll have only one. We’re warned against changing careers and, indeed, against changing our characters, because to do the latter implies we’re straying from our authenticity. (Articles like “How to Identify the One Thing You Were Born to Do” that one written by a guy whose New York Times bestseller is called What Is Your What?) When we’re older, self-help processes urge us to “seek our truth” or write a personal mission statement so we won’t drift from a kind of anchor of self we’re told our lives would be that much easier if we established.

The onion has no mission statement. It’s good in several forms, but it’s great when it changes. The spices I use in my soup have no truth, no singular essences that are transferred in full to my dish the instant I add them. Their potential blooms in combination with other things, and, most of all, with time.

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