When I was in my teens, I began to cook for my family. I primarily baked: pumpkin and pecan pies, buttermilk rolls, meringues, cottage cheese bread. I didn’t eat everything I made; I baked to feed the people I loved. I must have prepared other things, but they are lost in my memory. What I do know is I felt ensconced in the kitchen, and I relished the mixing of ingredients, the soft and sweet batters, how a list of seemingly bland ingredients could turn into something delicate and delicious.
After college, my interest in cooking and baking waned, to the point where my mother would have to coax me to bake those buttermilk rolls for her, and I had to be persuaded to contribute a pie for Thanksgiving. I was single for a lot of that time, and I rarely cooked for myself. After work, in my dim apartment with its little corner kitchen, I opened the fridge, its fluorescent light cooling my face, and pulled out items to eat, separately. I could easily opt for a dinner of yogurt and fruit, and pretzels became one of my food groups. I would have told you for more than a decade, “I don’t like cooking.” But I can’t figure out why, what got lost in my twenties about food and feeding good things to myself and others.
When I got married the first time, I took turns cooking with my spouse. He always said, “You don’t cook. You prepare.” He didn’t say it as a complaint—just as a statement when I would declare that I, too, cooked, as he did when he concocted a sizzling stir fry. What he meant was, when it was my turn to “cook,” I boiled pasta and heated up tomato sauce. I cranked open a can of soup. I protested his label of me as a preparer, not a cook, but the truth is he was right.
After my divorce, I returned to not even preparing dinners. I returned to, essentially, snacking for meals, as I had done in my twenties. Everyone who knew me during about a five-year span, post-divorce, would tell you that my go-to potluck dish was fruit salad. Cut up fruit and mix it in a bowl. Easy. (Wait a minute. I still do that for potlucks. Hm.) I also discovered the Whole Foods hot bar and salad bar. Why cook when you have that?
But I made two good friends, and we began a ritual of meeting on Sunday nights for dinner and a movie. Sunday had always been a day of gloom for me, the end of the week, much as twilight—as the end of day—is a time tinged with sadness. Sunday had that grey sort of cast to it. Those two friends changed that for me. The three of us took turns cooking, and I got interested again in recipes and cooking meals for them. I made brown lentil soup—not from a can—with carrots, cumin, coriander, celery, garlic, onions. I made curried wheat berry salad, and I cooked chicken casseroles. It made a difference, cooking for these two people I cared so much about, and it helped that one of them had a girlfriend who showed me what it was like to want to cook for health. She baked her own chickens, boiled her own chicken stock from the bones, made her own thick and creamy yogurt from milk. She used grains I had not heard of, and she made every dish from scratch. Eating a meal from her felt like an adventure.
And so my life and the people in it led me back to cooking. As I went into writing and editing full time, and then later after I married again, I found that I yearned for the ends of days, when I could migrate from my wooden desk and ye olde computer screen, from teasing out words and correcting punctuation, to the warm and waiting kitchen, where I could use my hands and a different part of my brain, where I could follow a recipe and know that at the end there would be a complete and tasty dish, something I could touch. Cooking became a way to decompress, and I fell in love with it all over again. I’m still not one to chase fancy recipes. If it has too long an ingredient list or strange ingredients that I can’t find in a regular market, forget it. I don’t like complicated, but I also prefer not to just open a can for dinner now. I make a great turkey chili, honey mustard chicken, sweet potato fries, fluffy cornbread, a mean frittata, and my standard black beans and tortillas with a dollop of sour cream. I notice, too, that when someone in my life, especially in my family, is facing something difficult or stressful, I find myself moving toward the kitchen, washing the beans with my hands under cold water, slicing onions, mincing garlic, sautéing things in a sizzling sauce pan, or kneading an eggy batter, stirring in some milk and millet for good measure, hoping to make sense of the things that are out of my control, and trying to bring comfort to a person I love.
My husband favors the turkey meatloaf, and he loves the yogurt custard pie with berries. My mother likes the cornmeal muffins; my sister requests the white bean soup; my dad prefers the curried butternut squash soup, or the pea soup, or the veggie stir fry. I have my favorites, too, but the best part is feeding the people I love, which is what I cared about all those years ago when I was just a teenager.
I hope they like what I make, and I hope they taste in those meals what I didn’t—but meant to—say.