Interviews are back! Each month, I’m going to be interviewing folks about their own unique creative processes and what they’ve learned about themselves, their work, and creativity along the way. This month, to get us back into these interviews, I am delighted to introduce you to a friend of mine whose art is not in performing or painting or any of the “conventional” arts—but I promise you she’s an artist all the same! Dorothy Mullen is the creator of The Suppers Programs (she’ll tell you more about that in a bit), and one of the most fantastic, clever, and artistic cooks I’ve ever met. I’ve eaten many meals that Dor has whipped up out of what, to many folks, would seem to be “nothing,” and they are fantastic—and she never uses a recipe! She’s also a master gardener, so she really knows her ingredients.
If you think that art and creativity have to happen in a studio or on a stage, Dor is here to prove otherwise.
Dor, tell us a little about yourself.
I run a non-profit organization called The Suppers Programs. I wouldn’t need to run it except every time I check with my doctor and counseling friends, they say nothing like it exists as a free-to-users program. Basically what we do is meet people at whatever level they are willing to start working on diet and lifestyle change, teach them how to cook, help them develop a palate for healthy food, and provide a social environment for healing. The motivation comes from a long history of unfortunate experiences with conventional medicine, starting 30 years ago with a month in a psychiatric hospital for an undiagnosed medical problem. Also, 2 doctors counseled me to abort my daughter. She’s a junior at Northeastern. Anyway, I decided to be an agent of change rather than get angry at the system.
How did you discover your creative dream/passion?
That’s easy. I was desperately ill and conventional medicine had nothing to offer me. It went on for decades. You can lift anything useful from Logical Miracles, which tells this story. If I had to put it in spiritual practice language I would say that God plays dirty pool. It was a total set up. I was injured. I had money (at the time). I had an idea. I was pissed at the system. I loved writing. I loved cooking. And I had mentors in the form of Bob Atkins and some of the brazen alternative medical doctors who were way out on a limb practicing medicine in a way that got them in trouble with the medical authorities.
You approach cooking differently than most people since you don’t like recipes. How did you come to abandon recipes?
I can’t follow knitting patterns either. When I was a child, I hid how I got answers during arithmetic lessons. I think I am neurologically set up to not be able to follow directions. Plus, it’s disempowering to work from a recipe. I’m going to taste it all at the end anyway and adjust the flavor. Why would I want some expert telling me what ought to taste good to my body? And it’s also not a creative process for me if I’m following someone’s directions. The creativity comes from using my own senses to decide what’s delicious. Also the satisfaction.
Does cooking without a recipe cause you to see food differently than you think you would otherwise?
Yes. When I go to the store, I’m not hobbled by ideas about what I’m supposed to find. I go and see what looks good today and work with that. If I want kale but the chard looks fresher, I’m not thrown off. The food speaks to me more if I go in without a fixed list.
I think a lot of people are terrified to cook without a road map that tells them where to go, because they think they’ll end up with something inedible. How do you know that you’re on the right track when you cook?
This is really important. This is why it’s so tragic that we’ve lost a few generations of cooks learning from parents and grandparents. No one would ask that question if they’d grown up watching mom and grandma in the kitchen; it would be second nature. But to answer the question, there are a few things that are basic.
I am on the right track if I get really fresh ingredients.
I am on the right track if I don’t try to learn too many new things at once.
l am on the right track if I ask an Indian woman in the Indian food store how she prepares the vegetable I have in my hand.
I am on the right track if I’m having a wonderful time.
I am on the right track if cooking is a social experience and I pick up ideas from people who know what they’re doing, just as I would have from watching my mother.
I am on the right track if I observe a few rules of science in cooking: Contact with oil instead of water enhances flavor. Salad dressings are a fairly formulaic relationship among oils, acids, sweet notes and salt notes. The more surface space when I cut, the more flavor in the final vegetable, but less if I’m cooking meat and I don’t want to lose the juices.
What would you suggest to those who are paralyzed by perfectionism in the kitchen?
Are they paralyzed socially too? I would make cooking a social experience. We are designed to learn these things from older women. Follow the evolutionary plan and find an older woman. I don’t think perfectionism is necessarily a bad thing; we want surgeons and Olympic athletes to practice it. So maybe perfectionism in the kitchen is best practiced by selecting dishes that are not too out of reach. In other words, pair perfectionism with simplicity rather than complexity and the outcome is more likely to be perfect. Also, a glass of wine helps with anxiety.
Yes, there is a strong overlap between creative and enjoyable for me, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick enjoyable. I look at the world through semi-scientific lenses of brain chemistry. The pleasure chemical cascade is easy to trigger in the kitchen. That feel-good dopamine response is ours for the mere price of smelling something we anticipate will taste good. Good food will raise blood sugar to comforting levels, but not too much. Beautiful-looking food will light us up even before the tasting starts because the visual appeal also feeds into the chemistry of happy anticipation. Our brains are all set up by evolutionary pressures to reinforce the seeking and eating of food and we take great comfort and pleasure in the meal. Ideally eating is usually a social experience, pleasant, warm, congenial. If I have the time to be creative in the process too, well, that’s gravy. For me the most creative part is in the anticipation (there’s dopamine again) and problem solving: What do I have; what looks good at the market; can I use the new spices I just bought; If I’m missing something what can I substitute; and especially flavor questions: What does the soup need? Why is the salad dressing flat? What will happen if I squeeze in some lemon juice?
If readers don’t live near a Suppers group/meeting, what would you recommend for those who want to try being more creative in the kitchen?
Find some one whose food you love and ask for a lesson. In the kitchen, creativity doesn’t stand alone; food is prepared that’s meant to be eaten. It’s not like a painting that will be enjoyed in different ways over a period of years. It disappears in hours. For me that means that the eaters are part of my creative process and the enjoyableness. Alternatively, find a child who likes to play, assuming there are any of them left. The playfulness of children can also feed into the creative pleasure of cooking.
Thanks so much for letting us glimpse how your creative cooking process works, Dor!
Photos by Jim McKinney