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Expert Interview Series: Alison Bermack of Cooking with Friends on How Food Inspires Camaraderie

Cooking with friends

Alison Javens Bermack, creator of the Cooking with Friends brand and website, is a writer, professor and market research consultant. She recently checked in to talk about how cooking encourages community and camaraderie. Here’s what she had to say:

How did you become so passionate about food? Who inspired your love of cooking?

I grew up in a family that grew vegetables in the front yard and didn’t care what the neighbors thought; produced their own yogurt before yogurt was mainstream; juiced carrots, apples and pears before juicing was on trend and baked whole grain bread long before the discovery of no knead bread. Before the days of food celebrities, I had my dad as my cooking hero. He taught me how to use a chef’s knife, slicing and dicing an onion like a Samurai warrior. When I would cut my finger, he told me to forge on just as they do in the battlefield and that it would only add to my character. It was my father who introduced me to the camaraderie of cooking, celebrating the act of creating food with another person and not just the end result. We were part of a slow food movement long before it had a name.

Tell us about the Cooking with Friends. Why did you start it?

When I first had children, I struggled like so many other women to balance and manage my new life and career. It was a Reeses “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate” moment when I realized that I could combine my love of cooking with friendship in order to make meals for my family. I merged what I had discovered to prove so rewarding cooking with my dad as a child to the present with my friends. As delectable aromas lured other friends to my kitchen, I realized that my avocation was something that appealed to more than just myself and my friends. Thus, I started the Cooking with Friends website as a means to offer recipes, inspiration and advice to others like myself.

What about cooking do you think inspires camaraderie?

When you’re cooking, there’s no pressure to make conversation. It just happens in a natural and organic way. There’s something quite powerful when we involve so many of our senses. As we smell, touch and taste the food we create with our friends, we are brought closer together. And when we part ways later, the lingering effect offers an added benefit to the food we serve to our respective families. It may sound sappy but it is so true. When I serve an apple pie at my Thanksgiving table that I made with a friend, it brings my friend and the moments we shared together to my table.

How do you think cooking with friends or loved ones can improve our overall health and sanity?

Well, they say that women are happier when they have increased levels of the hormone Oxytocin which is produced when women spend time with other women. Females have an internal need to be social, thus cooking with friends has an enormous benefit to their mental and physical health. As Oxytocin increases, stress levels decrease making for a healthy person. I can attest to the sanity aspect as cooking dates often begin with a friend in tears yet ending with smiles. Our chopping and simmering is often just the backdrop to serious conversation as we help one another deal with life issues – from what baby food to serve our infants to how we keep our newly driving teenagers safe. I couldn’t have raised my family without cooking with my friends. How’s that for a testimony to sanity?

What types of dishes or meals do you think inspire the most conversation and/or community?

Really any kind of food, but if I had to single out any characteristics I’d say foods that are either improvisational or repetitive. When we throw together a vegetable soup using whatever we both have in our pantries or crimp several dozen dumplings, it’s the mindless work which leads to the greatest opportunity for conversation. Also, there’s something magical about baking together. We might have to concentrate as we measure and stir but as the muffins or breads bake, the aroma fills our kitchens with warmth which only makes us that much happier.

What’s one of your favorite new food finds?

I’m finding new foods every day! Most recently, I’m eager to begin experimenting with Persian barberries which I ordered online. Also, my 10 year old and I are on a hot sauce making kick, so we’ve been shopping for different types of chilis.

What have been the most important life lessons you’ve learned in the kitchen?

I’ve learned that mistakes are part of life. If you make a mistake it’s ok (like using salt instead of sugar in a cake recipe!) and you simply need to try again. I’ve learned to trust myself and others. When I have an instinct as a chef, I try not to doubt myself and try something new. When a friend suggests something I might not agree with, I put my trust in her and let her lead the way. I’ve also learned that messes are part of life and that you can’t get hung up on not making one or you’ll miss out on so much in life. I’ve also been forced to slow down the pace of life and enjoy the process. Cooking forces you to do this. But above all, in my kitchens I’ve learned the importance of having a network of people to rely on in life.

What’s one of your favorite recipes to share with friends?

Practically everyone I know makes my Curried Chicken Empanadas. Inspired by my Argentinian friend, I got creative with these little pockets and created a ginger, garlic and curry flavored chicken empanada. All my friends make and freeze them as well and we serve them for dinner, lunches and even at parties with a side of Tamarind sauce.

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