Cooking as Metaphor: Alchemy part 2.14

Kent Dahlgren
4 min readAug 21, 2021

I love cooking, although I’ll admit that I’m not really a cookbook type of person.

My dad had a spice company, and maybe as a byproduct of the knowledge gained there, as well as how much time I spent in my grandmothers kitchen, I’m pretty decent at improvisational cuisine.

A pinch of this, a dash of that, this ingredient as it complements another. Timing, presentation, and boom: dolla dolla, y’all.

Come and get it!

There are surprising combinations, for instance: roasted beets and sweet potatoes coupled with chipotle and a small bit of cayenne within an enchilada recipe.

The chipotle and cayenne contributions deliver both immediate and slow motion burn, both of which are alleviated through the rich sweetness of the roasted beets and sweet potatoes, resulting in an enchilada that makes it into your stomach relatively unscathed but keeps you warm throughout the night.

In this manner, sweetness and heat are married in what some might describe in an alchemic manner.

I’m fond of the word alchemy, because it implies quantitative measurements and deterministic results, but actually ignites surprising outcomes that could be described as magical if one doesn’t understand the underlying science, and it has been famously said that magic is simply science that we do not understand.

Here’s another surprising blend: a pomegranate reduction with salmon or lamb.

If you season the pomegranate molasses with a healthy quantity of freshly grated ginger, a single dash of white pepper, and a little bit of powdered sugar, you get an incredibly diverse flavor which reveals an entirely different taste for salmon or lamb.

A third example: sashimi grade tuna tastes entirely different when married with high quality wasabi than it does when consumed alone.

Once you become acquainted with each ingredients’ quality, you can experiment and explore various surprising outcomes, which makes “cooking“ a delightfully meditative endeavor, right?

This is metaphor.

Imagine if different emotions could be bottled, and stored on a spice rack.

In this manner, nostalgia might sit in a jar adjacent to sadness, and until the two are blended, neither are capable of creating saudade (Portuguese).

Saudade: a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

It doesn’t matter if a word for this emotion doesn’t exist in the English language; the “flavor” can still be constructed by a skilled alchemist, so to speak.

I am as interested in the different blends for emotion as I am in the way that ingredients can be mixed to create a culinary work of art.

For example, humor and horror are shockingly similar, although that doesn’t become apparent until one learns how to experiment with how they complement one another, emotionally.

Humor: let’s assume that you have come up with a really funny joke. You place it on the ground, and then you endeavor to create a path which might lead the audience to your comedic masterpiece.

Delivery: you lead the audience down the path, and there’s a transcendent moment when and where they can see the joke peeking at them from over the horizon, and this stimulates suspense, anxiety, anticipation: all attributes of discomfort, no?

Humor is fascinating. When a person erupts into laughter they actually lose some physiological control, and their system is flooded with chemicals created by the brain design to make them feel good.

Actually, this is almost identical to what happens when a fawn is about to be eaten alive by coyotes.

It’s been observed that they will “giggle“ which likewise releases a flood of chemicals and endorphins, likely designed to help them endure the horrific experience.

Schematically, horror and humor are almost indistinguishable, which means that they blend in a complementary manner within an emotional and alchemic culinary masterpiece, if you will.

I am currently fascinated by discomfort, because it’s through this emotional ingredient that we are invited to change our ways or our course.

Comfort tells us that everything is working and we should sit tight, and so discomfort is necessary to get us off of our asses so we are not eaten alive.

But it becomes very engaging to experiment with what other ingredients add texture and gravity to discomfort, right?

Back to cooking, as metaphor:

Chipotle is a roasted pepper that delivers a slow burn, and it can be mitigated when consumed with something sweet (humor).

Cayenne in the context of this mix serves as almost an audacious provocation, because its heat is immediate, but the gambit still works: cayenne and chipotle are muted through the addition of sweet (at least in the short term), especially with the deep and rooty sweetness of beets and sweet potatoes.

But the sweetness doesn’t last, does it?

And what follows are a few hours of that deep down, almost subsonic rumble of heat that makes chipotle such a great culinary ingredient.

Indeed, in this context, consider the context provided by the slow and low heat of chipotle when one chooses to consume a sweet and rich dessert, such as flan.

Would the flan be as memorably delicious without the existing discomfort of the chipotle’s slow and low heat?

I doubt it.

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”