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Lang Whitaker

It is a weeknight, any night. I linger outside the sliding glass doors of my local grocery store, practically daring the motion sensor to notice me and fling the glass partitions apart, welcoming me in. Thoughts and ideas ricochet through my head: What produce will be fresh tonight? I made beef last night, should I do fish tonight? Can I get in and out of this store in under 10 minutes?

For the next hour or so, from the moment I set foot in the grocery store until the moment the last plate is clean, I will be in a competition. This isn’t Iron Chef or Chopped or Top Chef, where I’m matched against other people in the kitchen. Some people cook to feed their families, others as a means simply to unwind after a long day at a desk. For me, cooking is a sport. And I’m in it to win it.

At some level, the best level, cooking is about conflict: man versus food. I grew up playing sports, looking to win games. But these days, as an urban laptop jockey, I have to look to fulfill my competitive jones in more utilitarian ways. So my task is to defeat that food by any means necessary. My tools are my trusted knives and pots and pans. My arena: a four-burner gas stove and oven. My uniform: a grease-splattered apron and stack of towels.

For professional cooks, cooking is absolutely a physical battle, a nightly ordeal of sweating over hot stoves and sorting through an unrelenting crush of orders. Cooking dinner for my wife and myself isn’t nearly as demanding a task, yet even alone in my kitchen, I’ve still cut and burned myself more times than I can remember. For me, cooking is a physical sport mostly in terms of technique. Can I develop the necessary hand-eye control and skill to be able to finely slice a tiny clove of garlic? Can I peel these apples before the pork is overcooked? Can I tell if a steak is properly cooked simply by touching its surface? These are learned skills, things I’ve practiced and practiced for years and mastered only through trial and error.

Mostly, I see cooking as a cerebral contest. The majority of the cooking process takes place in my mind, from the time I begin planning the meal until I plate the food. I want to prove—to myself, to my wife, to my dinner guests—that I can tame an eye-watering onion, or perhaps conjure some previously unpredicted combination of ingredients that taste great together. I need to show creativity in what I’ve chosen to prepare. And I need to demonstrate that I have the foresight to have all the dishes finish cooking at the same time.

Finally, I will be judged. Sure, the judges are generally biased in my favor, being that we’re both humans and all. Still, there is usually a definite winner and a loser: me or the food. I’m not proud of it, but some days I come out on the short side, like over this past weekend when I attempted to re-invent the BLT sandwich without bread, to merely edible results.

Because of work and life, I don’t get many opportunities these days to take to the court or field and try to play for a win. But every night I have the chance to show that I can step into a small room with a few tools and a bag full of ingredients and win.

And the best part about viewing cooking as a sport? When I do win, I get to eat my competitor. And love every bite.

Lang Whitaker is Editor at Large of SLAM magazine, a contributing editor to Antenna Magazine, a contributor to NBA TV and the co-host of NBA.com’s Hangtime Podcast. He is the author of the memoir, In The Time Of Bobby Cox: The Atlanta Braves, Their Manager, My Couch, Two Decades, and Me.


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