How Cooking Saved Me
A BIG QUESTION Guest Post
by Krista Richards Mann
I love cooking.
Starting in grade school, my mother let me make dinner for the family once a week.
The first recipe I remember learning was something she called salmon patties. We removed small vertebras from a can of salmon with our fingers, mixed the glossy pink meat with left-over mashed potatoes and an egg, shaped them into disks and fried them in butter.
Mom taught me to make creamed tuna on toast starting with rue and then the canned fish and milk. And once or twice, we baked eggs in bologna cups. At Christmas, my Grandmother and I decorated cookies shaped like angels or bells.
These women had a way of making me feel responsible, important. I was contributing. I now know that a third grader in the kitchen is more trouble than contributor and am humbled by their patience. Either I was a culinary phenom or they were immensely kind.
Years passed, as they tend to do. I left home, got an apartment, fell in love, married and had children of my own.
How Love Grows
My love of cooking grew. It was something I could to physically nourish the people I loved. When my daughter was a baby, I puréed vegetables and froze them in bright cubes using ice cube trays. I experimented with new recipes and ingredients for anniversaries and birthday dinners. I continued to enjoy cooking for my little family as it grew.
We threw pleasant parties and welcomed guests and family to our table. We had a son, and plugged in a half-dozen waffle irons in a week later in celebration, making brunch for friends and family and blowing out the circuit breaker for the north side of the first floor.
We created traditions, as any young family does. Until we didn’t anymore. And everything fell apart, and we were dividing up wedding gifts. We had a four-year-old and a seven-year-old that we would always share, but there was no possibility of keeping our family together.
He Kept, She Kept
He kept the Calphalon; I took the Le Creuset. He kept the wedding china; I have the rug we bought on our honeymoon in Turkey. We halved the children’s’ toys into boxes marked “Mom’s,” and “Dad’s”. And we loaded up two moving vans and signed a parenting agreement splitting our children’s time between us.
I joked that I had half of two children. It wasn’t funny. I had no idea what I was going to do.
I rented a little house built from a Sears catalog kit in the 1940s and imagined all the happier people who might have lived there before me. We moved in our boxes of books and family photos, sheets and the Depression glass dishes my mother and grandmother had collected for me at yard sales over the years.
Those first weekends when the children were gone were desperate. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I stayed in bed more Saturdays than I should have. I needed to find a way to pay our bills (there would be no child support) but I wasn’t ready to think of that yet. I couldn’t imagine who we were becoming as a family. I had no precedent for this, no fantasy. And I couldn’t remember who I was as an individual.
And on Mondays when the children returned, the only thing I could do to create any sense of normalcy was to cook. I was a confident cook before the divorce, but the production of food had never had such urgency. Making a pot of soup became a tangible way of producing something good out of whatever we had.
We Could Peel Carrots
While I didn’t know what the future would hold, I could peel carrots and caramelize onions and fennel. And if I could manage that, and if I could get it all in a pot with the broth I froze last week and heat it for a while, there would be soup. When everything was uncertain, I knew that if I followed the recipe and mix the ingredients as I had a hundred times before, I would have chocolate cookies to give the kids when they came off the school bus. And as the house became scented with roast chicken or warm gingerbread, it became familiar. It became ours.
Knowing that I could feed my children gave me the confidence that I could raise them. Our mealtimes were peaceful and delicious.
I learned I could make holidays special when there weren’t a lot of presents or visiting relatives by baking cookies like my Grandmother did and letting the kids smother them with sprinkles. In summer, I put up strawberry jam after picking berries on a sunny Saturday, so that we could enjoy it all year. In the autumn the kitchen would smell like cinnamon as applesauce boiled on the stove. I believed I could create traditions based on flavor and taste and the nourishment that came from our kitchen.
There is something about cooking for someone else that bearsits own kind of intimacy. I can create something delicious with wholesome ingredients that can be consumed by someone else. It’s intimate that way.
On Being Full
I feel fortunate to be able to feed others. And cooking is almost immediately gratifying. I can spend two years writing a novel in the hopes that someone will someday enjoy it. But the cake cooling on the counter right now will be devoured.
Yes, occasionally I’ve had cooking errors. I tend to forget the last tray of cookies while I’m washing up. And I’ve overcooked a roast or two. My omelets often become an egg and cheese scramble. No one seems to mind.
We are fine now, the children and I. It’s hard to remember what it was like those first disoriented months. And food is central to our traditions. When we come together in the evenings even over the simplest of meals, and we can be quiet or share news of our days, I feel as if I have succeeded a little.
This post is part of the third BIG QUESTION series: What is Eating You? Thanks Krista!
Krista Richards Mann is a columnist, essayist and new media strategist living in Westport, Conn. Her column “Well-Intended” appears weekly in the Westport News.