Jon cooked thoughts. All kinds.
Like all good cooks and bakers, he started young. And like all good cooks, he tasted everything that he made. In fact, he scoffed the lot.
Jon began picking up ingredients before he was born. He started with voices, sounds. After he was born, he began collecting shapes, faces, colours, then language.
But he didn’t start cooking thoughts in earnest until he was a toddler. He began noticing patterns and making connections. He mixed, whisked and folded his thoughts together. Each time, he swallowed them whole.
Young cooks use whatever ingredients are to hand - older cooks, too. So he mixed his friends and family with people and places nearby or in the pictures on his walls.
Later, TV and books provided more ingredients. Jon began putting new dishes together. The older he got, the more colourful the thoughts. They got bigger too - richer, more complicated. School added new texture - lessons, students, teachers crept into his dishes. Holidays and day trips, things he’d seen and heard - every experience ended up on the plate. And Jon ate.
He was committed. He absorbed the dishes into his bloodstream. Into his very skin. Everything he saw, touched, felt, fed his thoughts. He wasn’t particular - he ate it all.
Gradually, and so slowly that he didn’t notice, something went wrong with the ingredients. Some of them went bad. And one bad ingredient can spoil a whole dish. It can give you indigestion or make you sick. Jon began to wonder sometimes if he was really a bad cook.
He kept cooking. He couldn’t stop. But he was more choosy about his suppliers. He didn’t watch certain things, stopped reading certain books. But still rotten ingredients ended up in his dishes. His thoughts indigestible.
He tried to cut off more suppliers. He stopped mixing with certain friends. But the dishes still ended up partly or completely spoiled. Jon realised that he would have to cut down his ingredients to an absolute minimum. He realised that he had better not go out at all. He just stayed inside the kitchen.
Jon’s family and friends began to notice that they weren’t seeing much of him. They began to worry. They tried to tempt Jon with new suppliers - books, pictures, trips out. Some of the new ingredients he bought worked well in Jon’s dishes, but many got mixed with the rotten stuff and were spoiled.
Jon was sick all the time now. He couldn't digest anything without checking it first. He had to chew over everything for hours, sometimes days or weeks before he could decide if it was good. But while he chewed, the bad stuff got further into his system and made him sicker. The more he cut out, the more he became convinced that it wasn’t the ingredients that were bad, it was him.
Jon’s world shrank.
Months and years passed while Jon eked out a living at home on bland, colourless food. He rarely used sauces and could no longer stomach spices or flavouring. He spent his time cleaning and checking his kitchen for dirt.
Sometimes Jon would remember a gorgeous dish or a particular taste from the past and he would feel sad that he could no longer enjoy it. Occasionally he would even look in the cupboard for an old favourite and cook it up. His family would always enjoy the dish - they would call it delicious - but Jon knew that it wasn't the same. When he tasted it, it unsettled his stomach and made his head ache. He would go back to cleaning his spotless kitchen.
One afternoon, an old friend suggested that Jon visit a speciality food supplier - one that Jon had never heard of. And even though he was not at all sure about it, he went. He hovered outside for a few minutes and then went in.
Inside were not only lots of different kinds of interesting ingredients, but also a few people: cooks. Cooks like him. He didn’t talk to anyone, but he listened. And he heard someone say that their dishes got spoiled too. That they found rotten ingredients in their cupboards. Jon struggled to believe his ears. Some cooks even had the same bad ingredients as him. And they had been afraid too. They had been sick. But they weren’t sick any more.
Jon stared. He blinked. Suddenly he could breathe. He had to sit down. Fresh air blew through the shop, through his skin. His hair lifted with the breeze. There were tears on his cheeks.
For years Jon had believed himself a bad cook. Only bad cooks could ruin so many dishes. But when he heard the others talking, he learned that it wasn’t him at all. Some ingredients just went off. It didn’t matter which suppliers he went to - the rotten stuff would always get in. Jon realised that perhaps he could work out a strategy. He was too nervous to ask the other cooks, but he watched them.
At home, Jon tentatively got out a saucepan and washed his hands. He threw in one ingredient after another, giving each a quick glance first. The dish turned out all right.
Jon realised that he really recognised the bad stuff a mile off, he just needed to see it for what it was and remember not to put it into the saucepan.
For the first time in a long time, Jon enjoyed his meal. He sat back in his chair and found himself planning. Looking forward. Perhaps he had always been a good cook?
By Deborah Fielding