My Life in Food

Published in Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals, Douglas Bauer, editor.  This essay was also published, in an abridged form, in the Life Lessons feature of Real Simple, November, 2006.

The joy of cooking began, for me, with Joy of Cooking, its ample sections on cakes and icings. I was six or seven, and my guide was our family’s housekeeper. She knew everything about baking: all the ingredients at room temperature, the difference between egg whites beaten to soft peaks and egg whites beaten to stiff peaks, what would happen when I tried to taste the delicious smell of vanilla extract. Seven-minute icing: we used a double boiler, and the sugar and egg whites transposed themselves into sweet clouds, magic on a layer cake. In second grade I loved a certain dark-haired boy, and when he consented to come home from school with me one day, we spent the warm California afternoon before his visit baking a chocolate cake and carefully carving it into the shape of a heart. The next day the boy ignored the cake and played tetherball with my brother, and I had an inkling of the fool’s errands I could invent for food.

When I was fifteen a college-age friend gave me a little blue binder painted with flowers, containing lined pages for recipes. She included some of her favorites, and as this was the early 70s these dishes bridged can cooking with Moosewood earthiness. Oatmeal Carmelitas used a jar of caramel sauce and quick-rolled oats. There was a casserole with canned corn, and there was broccoli with cheese sauce, too. I peeked outside the realm of sweets but wasn’t sure I liked what I saw.

Later, a college student myself, transplanted to the east coast, I used Christmas visits home to push my dessert making to a higher level. I advanced from a cake carved, as with the heart, into the shape of a fir tree and iced in green, to Julia Child’s Bombe aux Trois Chocolats, a brownie-like cake cut to line a bowl, then filled with mousse, and, once unmolded, topped with chocolate sauce. At the approach of each holiday visit, I phoned my mother with a list of ingredients to buy before my arrival: pounds of unsalted butter, slivered almonds, apricot preserves, bittersweet Tobler or Lindt. I made Reine de Saba and Tarte aux Poires.

I moved to New York, into a studio with a tiny, separate kitchen that my uncle made usable for me by hanging a pegboard and shelves. At the publishing company where I worked, books were everywhere and free, and I carted home novels and cookbooks, Julia Child’s two-volumeMastering the Art of French Cooking, Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook and More Classic Italian Cooking. This was during the glossy moment of the Silver Palate, and I cooked Chicken Monterey with orange juice and tomatoes, and wondered when I would start resembling the authors, start using their tips for entertaining and living. Would I ever have a water-side summer house to which I would welcome late-arriving guests with a Midnight at the Oasis party, complete with snifters of ouzo and dishes of dates, and Persian carpets strewn on the beach?

My rudimentary little stove alarmed me, the moment when I had to hold the lit match to the gas. It worked, though, and the blue ring cooked better than electric, sensitive to each tiny twist of the dial. I gave small dinner parties for my friends, prepared Butternut Squash Soup and Chicken with Raspberries or Julia’s Coq au Vin. I’d broken through to the meal itself, though pastry making remained my passion. Once, I started work on a strawberry tart, only to be flummoxed at the custard cream by my lack of cognac on a Sunday morning. All the liquor stores were closed, but I entered a tavern on 7th Avenue where the bartender at first said no takeout, then sold me a snifterful that I poured into a paper cup and carried back to my fifth-floor walk-up.

It pleased me to feed people. At holiday time, I assembled small gifts of homemade mustard and cocoa-dusted truffles for my friends, the cocoa muddying my hands as I carefully rolled each ball. What was I making? A pitch for a life centered around making things? A pitch for friendship itself? I could not be forgotten while my truffles were being consumed.

Cooking bridges the gap between people, binds others to us, our food still in their stomachs as they leave us and go home to their lives. A single woman in my twenties—a single girl—I cooked a dream of adult life, of dinner parties, which had been the center of my parents’ social life: eight or ten or sometimes sixteen men and women gathered around a table in my childhood home, bottle after bottle of wine going empty. On those long-ago dinner party nights, I took an outdoor path from the kitchen to my bedroom in order to avoid the fullness of inebriated adult life in the dining room. Only, years later, to try it myself. Something remained elusive. One impossibly hot night my New York walk-up was too stifling for the eight of us crowded around my table, and we had to take my dessert to someone else’s air-conditioned apartment, where the party slipped from my grasp.

Solace came from visiting my aunt and uncle, an Amtrak ride away. My aunt referred to herself as a burned-out cook, but I knew better. Even breakfast had the feel of an event, homemade or fancy bought jams set out for the English muffins. Dinners were carefully balanced by color, texture, and taste, usually with a special extra something that said meals mattered: corn muffins baked in cob-shaped ironware to go with the jambalaya, say, or beautifully puffed Yorkshire pudding with a perfect rare roast beef. On my weekend visits we embarked on all-day projects: concord grape jelly made from the purple orbs in her yard; homemade bread-and-butter pickles, mustard seeds suspended in the vinegary liquid. I brought a basket of tomatoes grown by my boss at her house in upstate New York, and we sliced some for sandwiches on thin white bread and used the rest for a labor-intensive sauce that tasted like liquid gold. My aunt showed me through her cookbooks, told me about making Beef Wellington and Coulibiac of Salmon for special dinners, how she’d become a cook because, in the early 60s, she had grown so bored with the seven-night-a-week imperative to provide a chop, veg and starch for her family. Watching her, I learned to cook intuitively, to add a little broth when a baking side dish began to look dry, whether the recipe suggested this or not. A gourmet is an explorer, and when she told me about a recipe for Star Anise Beef, I cut a path to Dean & DeLuca in SoHo, and on my next trip brought her a brushed aluminum tin full of the woody flowers.

I got brochures for cooking schools, but when I left New York it was for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the novels I’d hoarded taking precedence over the cookbooks. I was going to become a writer. I had an apartment in an old house on an old, cobbled street, my typewriter on a table in front of a window that looked out at a chestnut tree. I wrote and read and read and wrote, and for fun I drank gallons of beer with my fellow writers. A boyfriend and I put on a Thanksgiving dinner, using several of my aunt’s Thanksgiving recipes, but there weren’t enough guests and the party fell flat.

Months later, I began dating someone else. Eating, he told me with charming irony, was one of his favorite things. He bought a hibachi and I bought a blender, and we made a habit of having grilled shrimp and frozen daiquiris on the ledge outside his third-floor apartment. We invited the just-retired director of the writing program to dinner at my apartment on a humid summer night, and when I placed a half-pint of delicately washed and dried raspberries in perfect concentric circles on a cream-spread tart shell, my new boyfriend teased me about my carefulness and said his mother was interested in cooking, too. Our guests that evening had spent the day coping with the oppressive heat, our teacher’s wife reporting that for relief she had lain for hours on the floor of their old house. They were moving to California, my birthplace, where the summers were dry, and I felt that moving somewhere with someone would mean the end of an uncertainty about the future by which I was so troubled that I could not think of it much, if at all.

A year later, this boyfriend and I moved to a new city together, and real cooking moved into the center of my life. For the two of us or for ourselves and others, I made lemon-roasted chicken and veal stew and—a recommendation from my boyfriend’s mother, a wonderful cook like my aunt—slow-braised lamb shanks. We loved Shrimp Diane from Paul Prudhomme, a fantasia of butter, garlic and mushrooms. At a large brunch for friends we served homemade breakfast sausages and grand marnier French toast.

We married. The following summer, preparing for a year in France, we photocopied some of our favorite recipes and carefully packed measuring cups, knowing that otherwise the metric system might foil us. In the south of France we shopped daily, giving ourselves to the pleasures of tender haricots verts, fraises des bois, fresh-made pasta. At a restaurant in Normandy we sampled the great trifecta of smelly cheeses—camember, livarot, and pont l’eveque—and we passed the self-imposed test that we like them. In the Dordogne we had our first truffles, the flavor elusive, a fleeting taste of the earth in each bite.

Back in the United States my husband entered architecture school and I gestated our first child. I was nearly finished with my first book, and I gave myself to the pregnancy, let even cooking slip away while I knit and quilted for the baby. Before she was born I cooked huge pots of some of our favorite freezable foods, Bolognese sauce, beef stew, not understanding that in cooking as in literature great themes are introduced not at once but with careful foreshadowing. Thus was born, just before our daughter, the era of batch cookery.

It lasted for years. I still cooked fresh dinners from time to time, but I had lost the ability to give myself to the preparation of a meal. Motherhood was a shocking thief of time, or I a shockingly inept multi-tasker. Brown chunks of lamb while the baby drummed Tupperware at my feet? It was beyond me. How much easier it was to pull a pint of Southwestern Chicken Casserole from the freezer and nuke it, its flavors giving way, over the course of several meals, to the taste of the freezer itself. On weekends my husband or I would make triple batches of pasta sauce or chili, but even so, as the months progressed we made do with less and less: the Jambalaya without the Creole Sauce, the soup by itself on the table, no good bread, no salad.

Our daughter nearly rescued us. After a period of eating nothing but toaster waffles spread with cottage cheese and cut into squares, she became a culinary adventurer, and for a time I rose to the occasion. My toddler ate grilled salmon and broccoli! She ate lasagne, an affront to the first rule of toddlerdom: the foods must not touch each other! This period was not to last. And afterward, once her brother had arrived, we devolved even further, to shift eating, the kids fed at 5:30, bathed at 6:30, read to at 7:30, put to bed at 8:00; and the two of us looking balefully at each other across the clean kitchen counters at 8:30, sometimes 9:00, and then reluctantly opening the drawer where we kept those most important of documents, the takeout menus.

The story of how one eats is the story of how one lives: our barren, makeshift dinners signaled that something was awry. Or is it the other way around, and the cartons of Chicken Tikka Masala would have been fine if we’d laid a tablecloth, lit candles, lingered? Chicken or egg or omelette, the takeout period marked the beginning of the end of our marriage. After much work to prevent it, and much grief in the face of it, we separated.

For the next year I served my children food I would have been appalled to own ten years earlier. I unrolled pre-made pizza dough and spread it with tomato sauce from a jar, then sprinkled on pre-grated mozzarella. I bought Pillsbury crescent rolls and—God help me—wrapped them around hotdog halves. We ate a lot of pancakes. We ate Ramen. We ate toast. When the children were with their father I subsided on crackers, the occasional banana. When they came back I stocked the kitchen, but somehow with food of which I disapproved, guilty-mom food: Cotton Candy Go-Gurts, Rainbow Goldfish, Fruit Roll-ups and S’mores Poptarts. Trying to rally, I cooked tortellini, and the children pushed it away. I gruesomely underroasted a chicken—twice in six weeks.

Meanwhile, my fantasies roved through the San Francisco restaurants I’d frequented while married. I thought of the tomato-steeped spaghetti at Delfina, the sweet and savory Dragon rolls at Café Kati, the peppery shaking beef at Slanted Door. Whole meals appeared in my mind with glasses of wine beside them, mocking my recent insomnia, which had forced me to give up alcohol.

Could food ever be the thing itself, stripped of meaning and symbol and desire? One evening when the children were with their father I cooked the first real meal of my now-single life: grilled salmon, zucchini, rice. It was a turning point. I did not, of course, stop eating cereal for dinner after that, stop nuking bad enchiladas. But the future had become visible. The simple job of feeding myself could be no fool’s errand: it was in fact essential. To feed myself well was to put aside regret and to say that a life changed at the halfway point could be a life saved. What had been foreshadowed with the fancy cakes thirty-five years before was care itself.

But to entertain is still sublime. Divorced now, I recently invited a group of friends for dinner. My first party on my own. From the Greens cookbook I prepared a dish of asparagus and fresh peas cooked in saffron cream and served over fettuccine. I prepared a green salad full of orange and grapefruit slices, to cut the richness of the main dish. And for dessert I offered mixed-berry shortcake, composed of soft whipped cream, glistening red and purple fruit, and biscuits that I had bought, not made, because I had at last realized that the best solution might not be the optimal one.