In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My grandmother was bold and flashy — I don’t think she owned a piece of clothing that didn’t have rhinestones — and her cooking was legendary. People fought over her peach cobbler and yeast rolls at holiday gatherings.
I was eight years old when she first let me work with her in the kitchen. Our project was peanut brittle. We added peanuts to molten toffee, then poured the mixture onto a buttered sheet pan and put it in the oven.
After five minutes Grandma opened the oven and talked to the peanut brittle. “Aww, look at that pretty baby,” she said. “Cooking up all nice and sweet.” She patted the mixture down with a wooden spoon and closed the oven door. Another five minutes went by, and she opened the oven again: “Yes indeed. Look at you, all fine and delicious looking.” As always the peanut brittle came out perfect. Anytime we baked, she opened the oven and talked to the food. She called it “cooking with love.”
The first time she put me in charge of baking cookies, she reminded me to cook with love. Feeling ridiculous, I opened the oven and said to the cookies, “Looks good!” I quickly closed the door. The cookies came out burnt.
“You’re not cooking with love,” Grandma said. “You’re just pretending.”
We put another pan of cookies in. At her signal I opened the oven. “You’re beautiful,” I said to the cookies and closed the door.
“Nope, that wasn’t love. Try again.”
I opened the oven again. “Aww, you so pretty . . .”
“A little more,” Grandma said.
“That’s a beautiful baby, cooking up all nice,” I said, and Grandma smiled at me. This time the cookies came out perfect.
The next time we baked, Grandma kept a careful eye on me and prompted me to add more love until I was practically cooing at the cake we were baking. It came out perfect. I had never been so proud of myself, and I finally understood the importance of cooking with love.
Forty years later I’m making cinnamon rolls and realize the oven is too hot for them to rise properly. When I open the oven to let some heat out, it hits me: opening the oven and talking to the food was how Grandma controlled the temperature in her old, broken-down oven.
Deborah L. King
It was a Saturday night two weeks before Christmas, and the hotel kitchen had reached terminal velocity: four hundred people in the ballroom for a party thrown by a big downtown law firm; a host of smaller groups in the satellite spaces off the mezzanine; a wedding reception in the downstairs foyer. And the restaurant was fully booked.
The banquet ovens were packed full of salmon, whole turkeys, and roasted strip loins. I was on the restaurant line, where my crew of four performed the high-speed choreography of fine dining: As tickets rolled off the printer, I called the orders and pickup times. Plates hit the window six, eight, ten at a time, and I garnished and handed them off to the procession of servers charging through the double doors. Over by the grill station, two cooks went full tilt against a barrage of orders from the lounge and room service. As chaotic as it might have looked, everything was in perfect sync, and I was humming to myself to keep my head clear.
The kitchen was a relic, largely unchanged for decades. Food was cooked on massive stoves with a cast-iron top and gas jets underneath. You controlled the heat not by adjusting the gas but by moving your pans around the surface: the edges were cooler, the center of the “bull’s-eye” hot enough that it glowed red. Half-gallon pitchers of clarified butter and oil for sautéing were perched on the edge of the stove tops.
About an hour into service a column of flame three feet wide shot up from the stove top — someone had upended a full pitcher of oil straight onto the bull’s-eye, with predictable results. We held our breath and waited to see if anything ignited, but the flames subsided quickly.
Then the sprinklers came on.
Where moments before there had been orchestrated chaos, there was now barely contained panic. Cooks scrambled to cover their stations with sheet pans. The dining-room manager stood by the doors looking stricken. Our banquet chef, a seasoned pro, barked orders to unload the ovens’ contents onto rolling racks, which he covered with plastic and hustled elsewhere. In the midst of this a sprinkler pipe in the ceiling cracked, and the suspended panels popped from their frames under the weight of black, greasy water.
The rest is a blur. I remember my boss, pants rolled up to his knees, using a fallen ceiling panel to push water toward the floor drains. With a mixture of horror and delight I watched the ceiling collapse in the chef’s office, soaking his computer and everything around it. Servers wheeled plastic-shrouded carts of loaded buffet pans through the deluge, taking them to unsuspecting guests two floors above.
In the end we had to empty the dining room and offer vouchers to anyone who had not yet gotten their meal. Food for the banquets went out more or less on time and intact. The fire department turned off the sprinklers, gave us the all clear, and left. Then we began the monumental task of cleaning up; it was only eight hours until breakfast service.
Whenever anyone says to me, “Oh, being a chef must be so much fun,” that night is the first thing I think about.
In high school I am mesmerized by the beautiful girls who are my lab partners or are assigned the seat next to mine in class. Initiating conversations proves challenging. I am painfully shy, and accounts of my pet rats and baseball-card collection fall flat.
I need an edge, something unique that most boys my age lack. I consult my older brother, who appears to have little trouble meeting women at college. He tells me women love a man who can cook.
So I enroll in Basics of French Cooking. One night I make dinner for my family: a roasted-chicken dish that involves a gravy made of white wine, lemon juice, chopped celery, onion, and carrots. I nail it: tender, juicy chicken with thick gravy, served over potatoes and green beans. I beam, thinking of all the young ladies I’m about to impress. But I have zero success in convincing a girl to come over for a home-cooked meal with my parents.
In college I finally find a willing date. I purchase new kitchenware in anticipation but neglect to read the instructions, and my brand-new Pyrex casserole explodes in the oven. I remain single.
Then I meet a beautiful hippie at a Grateful Dead show. She’s joyful, free — and vegan. No chicken on the menu. I call my mom for advice, and she suggests replacing chicken with lentils because they cook quickly. I’m pleased with the results until, shortly after our meal, I discover that lentils produce noxious flatulence. I have to keep leaving the room as we’re necking. It’s a great meal but a short-lived courtship.
I give up on trying to impress women with my cooking skills and decide I will just be my quirky self. Eventually someone will find me.
Sure enough, a few years later I meet a woman who loves me for who I am. One evening early in our relationship we are at her father’s house, talking about what to make for dinner, when I notice he has a chicken and a few veggies in the fridge. I offer to cook. My partner expresses doubt, but her father encourages me. There’s a lemon tree and a rosemary bush in his front yard. I can do this! I stuff the chicken with rosemary, garlic, and lemons, and voilà! I never imagined I would use my culinary skills to make an impression on a middle-aged man, but my girlfriend’s usually terse father is effusive. He says it’s the best chicken he’s ever had.
A few years later I marry his daughter in a ceremony on his property, right near the rosemary bush and the voluptuous lemon tree.
Morro Bay, California
During my sixteen years in prison I learned many chain-gang recipes. The most popular was the “burrito,” made with drained ramen noodles, the ramen flavor packet, chopped string cheese, Slim Jims, Cheetos, and whatever vegetables you could smuggle out of the kitchen. We used the blades from disposable razors to carefully chop the vegetables or meat and ate using Doritos or crackers to scoop up the “burrito.” It tasted like heaven compared to prison food.
Grilled cheese sandwiches were another treat. To make them, you had to save white bread, processed cheese, and butter from lunch. Then you made a fire using toilet paper and fried the sandwich on your steel bunk. Of course you could only do this if there were no guards around, so you relied on other men in the dorm to announce the guard’s approach. If you were lucky, none walked by, and you had a great snack to share with your friends.
My first Christmas out of prison I was working as a dishwasher, and my boss at the restaurant gave me a Christmas turkey. I brought it home and invited everybody I knew to my apartment for dinner. But, one by one, my friends canceled on me. I was pissed off but stuck to the plan. When the turkey was finally done, I opened the oven and admired it. I could not waste this moment.
I went to my neighbor’s apartment and told him I had baked a turkey.
“Sorry,” he said. “I already ate.”
I explained that I just wanted him to take a few photos of me with my turkey. I must have seemed pathetic, a grown man cooking a turkey alone, but he agreed. I posed holding the pan with my pot holders and smiling as though the best party in the world were about to start.
After he left, I sat down in front of the TV to eat.
St. Petersburg, Florida
When I was a girl, I loved waking up to pots and pans clanking and the aroma of onions, tomatoes, and spices wafting into my childhood bedroom — the sounds and smells of a Punjabi family dinner party. I excitedly awaited the arrival of aunts, uncles, and cousins. How my mom cooked for thirty-five people while making sure my sisters and I were washed and ready by 6 PM is still a mystery. How we always came together around food is not.
Cooking is second nature to my mom. Her chicken curry is expertly spiced, her dal the right consistency, her roti perfectly round. Nearly thirty years since she made these elaborate dinners, my cousins and I still reminisce about her cooking. Even today, in our forties, we request her chole bhature on special occasions.
Whenever someone asked why I didn’t cook Indian food, I’d say, “Why would I? I can just go home for it,” or, “I know the best Indian restaurant in Berkeley.” Then COVID hit. I could no longer go to a restaurant or stop by my parents’ house a couple of times a week to get my fix. I also knew I could never replicate my mom’s delicious dishes. But I could make my own.
Now I cook tandoori-spiced chicken wings and shrimp curry for my friends and family, and while my dinners do not match the huge gatherings of my childhood, I love my intimate meals for two or three. Even in a pandemic, we still need to cook. We still need spices. We still need our people.
As I was preparing to marry their son, my future in-laws were getting a divorce. They’d been married for forty-two years. Although my husband’s mom quickly found her equilibrium, my father-in-law, Bert, was lonely and unmoored. He brooded that no one would ever be interested in him again.
At the age of seventy-three Bert moved to a Florida retirement community, where his social life took off. A variety of eligible ladies invited him to theater and sporting events and prepared meals for him. Bert enjoyed telling me about the lovely women he was meeting.
Before long, my father-in-law was mentioning one woman’s name repeatedly — Dottie, a widow five years his senior. Bert gushed over “that sweet little gal.” Meeting her, I quickly realized why she’d captivated him.
Bert was considering marrying her, but, he confided, he had one major reservation: Dottie didn’t care for cooking. His ex-wife had been an excellent cook, an aspect of his marriage he’d very much enjoyed. Dottie preferred going out to eat.
“Dottie cooked for fifty-five years,” I told him. “She’s probably tired of cooking! Besides, what’s wrong with eating most of your meals out? Would you rather be with this wonderful woman, or eat a tasty casserole made by someone who barely speaks to you?” I added that nothing was stopping him from doing some cooking himself.
A few months later Bert and Dottie wed. They enjoyed ten years together filled with laughter, joy, and very little cooking.
In 1972 my future spouse and I joined some friends on a treasure-hunting trip to an uninhabited island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Our research had told us there were three locations where we might find pirate treasure. We hired a local fisherman to take us to the island in his boat and pick us up in one week’s time.
We brought enough food to last seven days. There had once been a lighthouse on the island, and the keeper’s house was still there. We scavenged what we could find from it to make an iron oven and good cooking surface. I remember to this day the meals we prepared in our improvised oven: wild-raspberry cobbler and sourdough pancakes from a starter we made on the island.
We found no treasure, and when the week ended, no boat came to pick us up. We figured the fisherman was delayed. At ten days we began to worry. We were down to eating just potatoes. At one point we stood in the dark on top of a basalt cliff, looking across the water to the mainland, eight miles away. Our flashlight’s beam was too weak to be used as a signal, and no one would be looking for it anyway.
Our food supply would not last much longer. The friends who had organized the trip had brought along their dog and a big bag of dog food. Thinking we might have to eat it ourselves, we began experimenting with how to cook it. Fried dog food is among the worst smells I can remember. We were all extremely relieved when, after two weeks, the fisherman showed up to take us back to the mainland.
I’ve always been culinarily challenged. In my postcollege years I had a lot of pizza bagels and ramen and spaghetti eaten from the pot it was cooked in — no dishes to wash! My low point was tomato sauce poured onto a slice of bread, which I then folded like a taco. I called it a “sauce sandwich.”
So I’m not sure why I was so eager to cook dinner for Kate when we started dating. Perhaps I wanted to impress her. I owned one cookbook, a thin paperback my mom had mailed me after my previous girlfriend and I had broken up. I’d never even opened it. I pulled the book down from the shelf and picked a Hungarian goulash recipe that sounded good. Kate came over and watched TV while I cooked.
The dish turned out well, until I divided it between two plates. Each portion was little more than a handful. Though I had followed the recipe exactly, it was clearly not enough food.
I picked up the cookbook my mother had sent me to see where I’d gone wrong, and Kate suggested I look at the cover. The title explained everything: The Single Vegan.
She married me anyway. I haven’t become a good cook, but I’ve learned enough from Kate to help feed our two daughters — one vegan and the other vegetarian.
My grandmothers’ worlds were far apart — and so was their cooking. My father’s well-educated mother was a respected schoolteacher who married a gentleman farmer and lived on hundreds of acres. Being literate is an advantage when following a printed recipe, and not being poor increases your options at the grocery store. Your hands are also steadier when they’re not fending off the blows of a drunken husband.
My mother’s mother was a tenant tobacco farmer who married an undiagnosed schizophrenic twice her age. Her goal was to get food on the table with the few ingredients available while Grandpa was “sleeping one off.” As a kid I dreaded eating at her house. Seasoning to her just meant salt and more salt. Meat was often fried Spam. After the cow died, they drank powdered milk.
But there were biscuits — always homemade — and real butter. Not once did I see margarine in her kitchen, where a funeral-home calendar covered a fist-sized hole in the wall.
It occurs to me that my maternal grandmother wasn’t just making biscuits. She was providing an answer to the prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” — and it didn’t come from a Pillsbury can. It was one thing she could control and feel good about. Regardless of what the fields yielded or her unstable husband provided, every day there would be biscuits.
Thompson Station, Tennessee
My father was a self-made man and hard to impress. He worked his way through college and medical school and became a doctor specializing in international public health. Good grades and good behavior from his children were expected, not praised. Although I did get good grades and worked full-time in college, he almost disowned me when he discovered that I often stayed out late partying and smoking weed.
In my junior year I saw a chance to earn his approval, not with my studies (I was a film major) but with my day job. I was hired at a gourmet restaurant that was part of a new multimillion-dollar resort overlooking the Pacific. Among the few things my father did appreciate were fancy hotels, nice views, and exquisite food.
A month after the resort’s grand opening, my parents visited for the weekend and had dinner at “my” restaurant. My father ordered seared-ahi salad with wasabi vinaigrette, a dish that was prepared at my station. My position was garde-manger, a fancy word for the person who prepares the cold dishes — mainly salads, appetizers, and desserts.
For the next twenty-one years, including in the final months of his life, my father proudly reminisced about the best seared ahi he’d ever had — “the one Johnny cooked at that fancy resort.” Of course, I didn’t actually cook the ahi he spoke so highly of. It was seared on the grill by the sous-chef and passed to my station, where I sliced it, tossed the greens, and arranged the presentation.
But his approval was so rare that I never told him I was just the guy who dressed the salad.
Mountain Center, California
When I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, my family had a maid named Daisy Belle who cooked classic Southern food: greens and beans cooked in lard and homemade stock; ham and potato salad rich with mayonnaise; deviled eggs; fried chicken; liver and onions. It was the kind of food that satisfied the soul as well as the body.
After my dad died, Daisy Belle’s cooking helped soothe our broken hearts. Even when my throat was tight with grief, the love she put into her food eased my sorrow. The memory of those meals comforts me to this day.
When we moved to Pensacola, Florida, Daisy Belle came with us. Her presence — and her food on the table — represented stability and safety to me. Living on the Gulf Coast, she added seafood to her repertoire: fried shrimp, boiled crab with potatoes and corn in a spicy broth, grilled grouper with tartar sauce. After a year we moved to Georgia, Daisy Belle moved back to Jackson, and I mostly forgot about her.
Years later Daisy Belle came to my wedding with her two oldest daughters, whom I had never met. At the wedding-day breakfast I could feel the daughters’ anger. I realized Daisy Belle had sacrificed their comfort for ours. Their family got the money we paid her — enough to lift them out of poverty — but we got the time, effort, and love that good home cooking requires, while they ate someone else’s food.
I’m ashamed to say I had never considered how Daisy Belle had been forced to deprive her own children so that she could cook for my family.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
I stood backstage in a ball gown, my fingers stinking of the onions I’d julienned in the episode shot earlier that day, and wondered if this was really the best use of my Chinese degree. The Liberian contestant was onstage at the moment. I was waiting to go on and sing a Chinese version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — only I’d changed the lyrics to make them about cooking, thinking the humorous lines could be part of my “talent.”
It was winter in Tianjin, China, and the TV studio was freezing. My fellow contestants and I — women from all over the world — were participating in a version of Top Chef. I’d made it to the halfway mark and needed the song to be a hit to advance to the next round. I had a cold and didn’t sing as well as I’d hoped, but my humor was appreciated, and I made it through.
During the weeks of filming, I often questioned my decision to participate. The cooking classes had been more of an enticement for me than the promise of “exposure.”
There were two of us from the U.S., and the other woman was more traditionally attractive — blond hair, thin, tanned. I needed to rely on my creativity if I wanted to win: coming up with fusion dishes and stories that went along with them.
For one episode I made a Bolognese sauce with julienned carrots, radishes, and white onions, served it over udon noodles with a large prawn on top, and garnished it with cilantro. The dish was colorful and tasty. I wound up moving on to the next round.
On the final day of filming, there were two episodes left. For the first, just three contestants remained: Spain, China, and me. The Spanish contestant’s dish was delicious but looked a bit of a mess. I guess mine was better for TV, or perhaps it was the story I told that kept me from being eliminated.
During the lunch break the Spanish contestant, stuck at the studio until the end of filming, picked up the prompt cards the host had left on his podium and began to read them aloud. She gasped and called me over.
The cards from the morning had a blank space for the name of the contestant who would be voted off, but for the final episode the name of the Chinese contestant had already been typed in as the champion. We were furious.
I suppose it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. The Chinese contestant is a relatively famous actress now. I have nothing against her personally. But it was crushing to learn that I’d never had a chance. In the photos from that day, you can see I’m barely holding in my anger.
In the end, though, I walked away with the friends I’d made, some new cooking skills, and this story. Not too shabby.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province
Somehow my mother didn’t catch on to the fact that I was sick every Wednesday morning. I would moan about a headache and surreptitiously touch the thermometer to a light bulb — no school for me. Mom would tuck me into bed with a cup of tea on the nightstand and the TV tuned to my requested channel.
I was obsessed with Television Kitchen, one of the first televised cooking programs in the U.S. The hostess, Florence P. Hanford, spoke in a fast, authoritarian manner as she diced, stuffed, whipped, poured, and rolled. She used utensils I’d never known existed, like lemon juicers and garlic presses. The early 1960s dishes she created were so sophisticated: Cucumber tomato aspic! Nippy mayonnaise!
The women in my family were messy and unadventurous in the kitchen. My Ukrainian grandmother boiled foods to varying shades of gray, and her house reeked of organ meat and fish. My mother prided herself on being a “modern” housewife, meaning all her ingredients came out of a can or box.
Lying in my “sick” bed, I swooned over the sound of Florence’s spatula as it coaxed viscous batter out of a metal bowl and into the cake pan. Her catchphrase, as she pulled dishes from the oven, was “Perfect results!”
It’s not that I wanted to be Florence. She was too old and looked too much like a home-economics teacher. But I coveted the role of one of her assistants: confident older teenagers in wool skirts, tight cashmere sweaters, and heels, who glided across the screen and placed each dish on an immaculately set table.
By the time I reached high school, the feminist movement had taken hold. I rebelled against domesticity, denouncing the kitchen as a prison constructed by the patriarchy. But I still cherish cooking for family and friends. I have accumulated many gadgets that slice, whip, and whisk. Whenever I serve a special meal, I imagine I’m one of Florence’s graceful “girls,” placing my offering before the people I love.
Santa Cruz, California
I found out I was pregnant a week after Thanksgiving 1959. I married my boyfriend during Christmas break and returned to high school for classes that January. The administration asked me to leave, as other pregnant girls had done, but I was a senior and planned on attending college. I had to acquire a diploma.
To do that, I had to pass all the graduation requirements, including Phys Ed. It wasn’t easy doing pushups and broad jumps at eight months pregnant, but I managed. The thing that almost kept me from graduating wasn’t gym, or even getting stuck in my desk — it was cooking in Home Economics.
I had morning sickness almost the entire time I was pregnant, and as soon as I walked into the small, windowless room and started to cook, I had to bolt for the bathroom. I tried nibbling on saltines and a few other ideas my mother gave me, but to no avail.
One spring day I was turning green at my Home Ec workstation when my teacher pulled me aside. Scared she was going to tell me to quit coming to class, I was shaking as she invited me into her office. She quietly told me she had come up with a plan: instead of cooking, I would go to an empty classroom and plan out seven healthy meals a week from three of her favorite cookbooks. I burst into tears of gratitude.
I graduated that June and gave birth to my daughter at the end of July. I don’t remember any of those recipes, but I remember that teacher’s kindness.
Iowa City, Iowa
On a Tuesday night seven college-aged women were gathered in my kitchen browning beef, laying out tortillas, and spreading beans. They laughed and swapped stories about professors and significant others and family. The next morning we would go to the place where migrant workers waited to be picked up, and we’d hand out tacos and coffee.
Several years into this Wednesday-morning ritual, we knew many of the migrant workers by name. We knew what countries they called home and which of them had left children behind — usually the ones who squeezed the fat thighs of my infant son, who squealed with joy at the attention.
We suspected our American tacos were not particularly tasty to these men, but the food was hot and made with affection, and the men received it with grace and thanks. Before we’d started doing this, none of the young women had ever met a migrant worker; many of the men had never been treated with kindness by the residents of our small college town. Once, we asked them what made this life bearable. “You do,” one told us. “You all see us. That makes it bearable.”
Some of the women were religious; many were not. But they were all drawn to serve, which to me is the best example of faith.
Every weekday at 8 AM my grandmother’s boss picked her up in his big gray Cadillac for the commute to their office in West New York. Wearing shoes that matched her purse, she clocked eight hours a day as a secretary for a sewing-machine importer, then went home to cook dinner for her husband and their two kids. No matter what they ate, there was always a salad on the table with a cruet of Good Seasons vinaigrette on the side.
One winter morning while she was at work, a big snowstorm came through. By ten o’clock the snow was falling heavily enough that her boss decided to close up for the day. Their commute home took nine hours. In that time they almost ran out of gas, got stuck in a snowbank, had tea at a stranger’s house, gave a ride to a woman who’d had to abandon her car near the Meadowlands, and ate hamburgers at White Castle.
When she finally made it home, her husband was on the couch. “I peeled the potatoes,” he said.
She told me this story so many times over the years that I memorized it. I’d laugh, as if on cue, at my grandfather’s ineptitude. By the time she turned eighty, my grandmother had grown bold enough to say, at the end of her tale, “I wanted to hit him on the head with the pot of potatoes and go to bed.”
Years later, when she was dying of kidney failure, she requested we make scalloped potatoes for Easter. While I grated the cheese, she peeled the potatoes.
Cranston, Rhode Island
My mother’s cooking was all-or-nothing. At holidays and dinner parties it was all. The rest of the year it was nothing.
My three siblings and I weren’t bothered and happily made our own meals out of such seventies staples as Cap’n Crunch, Vienna sausages, and Carnation Instant Breakfast. We ate these odd meals at odd hours. My brother would devour an entire sleeve of crackers in fifteen minutes after school. After volleyball practice my older sister would eat a mound of Cool Whip washed down with a glass of diet soda. My younger sister made Fluffernutter sandwiches: Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter. I stuck to small cans of deviled ham until I went on Weight Watchers in fifth grade. Then I switched to canned tuna, beets, and air-popped popcorn.
Now middle-aged, my sisters and I still long for the appetizers Mom would serve to guests, like the cocktail wieners you had to stab with a toothpick to eat, your hand cupped underneath to catch the drips of a boozy sauce. Our favorite was a salami roll-up with cream cheese and horseradish. I have tried and failed to re-create it. Mom never wrote down her recipes, and now she’s gone.
She died at sixty, divorced, after a decade of slowly losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Before that, her mind had often been murky from alcohol, which made me angry, and my anger made me silent. I never did ask her what was in those roll-ups, even when I knew time was short.
When I was growing up in the Philippines, my family had a reputation for serving the best food. I took pride in this and judged others by the sophistication of their palates, even though I had no right to make such assessments. I couldn’t cook at all.
For me the kitchen was a place of judgment. I felt diminished each time my grandmother called me “ignorante” for disliking the ginamos (fermented fish roe) or manga at bagoong (green mangoes with shrimp paste) that she made. I fumed when my aunt mocked me in front of family and friends for not knowing how to boil rice. To protect myself from ridicule, I steered clear of the kitchen.
It wasn’t until years later, as a newly married immigrant in London, that I finally learned how to cook. My teacher was my mother-in-law, Sonia. On the surface we seemed quite different: I came from the Philippines, she from Brazil. I was ambitious and equipped with two master’s degrees; she was a long-retired single mother who had barely finished high school.
We found common ground in food: I loved to eat, and her cooking was legendary. My husband never ate in Brazilian restaurants because they inevitably fell short of his mother’s feijoada (bean- and-meat stew) or salgadinhos (savory snacks). Whenever she visited from Brazil, our friends came over to indulge in Sonia’s meals. When my family traveled to Brazil, the primary attraction was Sonia’s bacalhau com natas (cod with cream) and mocotó (meat stew). As an afterthought they discussed which sights to see.
Sonia had lots of cooking tips, even for a fried egg. Though precise, her instruction was never critical. When I left noodles in the pot for too long, she told me about the time she’d boiled water until it had completely evaporated from the pan and smoked up the kitchen. When I became frustrated trying to wrestle open a pressure cooker, she gently showed me that the lid needed a twist in addition to a pull. “It’s the same in the kitchen as in life,” she told me. “Once you know the secret to something, it’s easy.”
I became a Filipina whose repertoire consisted mainly of Brazilian staples. The kitchen became a safe space where I could toast the farofa (cassava flour) until it reached the shade of browned bacon, or sauté the couve (greens) until they released a leafy bouquet. Most of all, cooking became fun.
My son, Enrique, began to develop his culinary skills, too. At twelve he loved Sonia’s brigadeiros (chocolate truffles) so much, he learned to make them, then sold them to his classmates. Now eighteen, he prepares a churrasco (barbecue) to rave reviews from family and friends.
At the beginning of the COVID lockdown my husband and I were on video chat with Sonia one evening. She said she was under the weather but wanted to know if we had enough beans and rice to see us through the next couple of weeks. “Never let too much time pass without feijão e arroz,” she said.
The next evening she collapsed in her beloved kitchen and never got up.
I see her now when I watch Enrique cook. “The fire should lick every side of the steak,” he says, meticulously repositioning the meat on flames that leap from the grill. “It seals the flavor in.”
© Alex Kustanovich
I was getting ready to make a batch of chocolate-chip cookies — a Christmas Eve ritual I had kept alive every holiday since my mother had passed away twenty-five years earlier, when I was twelve years old. That’s when my brother Daniel walked into the kitchen.
I didn’t often ask Daniel for help. Though he’s nine years my senior, he’s autistic, which means I’m usually the one helping him.
Halfway into measuring the flour, however, something stopped me. I heard our mom’s voice: Share, Nicole.
Daniel was staring down at his hands, singing Beatles songs. “Do you want to help me?” I asked.
His eyes lit up, and he washed his hands before meeting me at the counter. I measured out the ingredients, which he added to the bowl.
When it was time for the eggs, I figured I’d need to crack them. I patted Daniel on the back and thanked him — but he didn’t move. “Eggs,” he said, looking at me and waiting.
I considered how long it must have been since he had made cookies with our mom. I considered how much he probably missed the sight of sugar meeting melted butter and the smell of vanilla extract.
I counted the eggs we had left. There was little room for error. Then my eyes met his.
I pulled out a measuring cup, an egg-breaking safeguard I had relied upon for years, but with the first crack it was clear Daniel didn’t need it. Same with the second. And the third.
He poured the yolks into the bowl and beat them to form a sweet, rich, and smooth dough. Only after he was satisfied with the result did he speak. “I did it,” he said, eyes fixed on the batter before him. I smiled, thankful to have witnessed his success, and wondering why I’d waited so long.
Looking at my infant son in his high chair, covered in spaghetti, I had a horrifying thought: I have to provide him with three meals a day for the next eighteen years, and I don’t like to cook.
I set out to make the task as easy as possible. I clipped recipes out of magazines — mostly casseroles, because they were cheap and quick to prepare. If I was feeling fancy, I would make tacos. Fridays would be pizza night. Saturdays we would eat out.
When I went to holiday potlucks, I brought my broccoli-and-cheese, hashbrown, and green-bean casseroles. Relatives began asking for my recipes.
When my kids got older, I asked them to cook dinner once a week. The younger one balked, but the older one was excited and offered to do two nights. I was just thankful to have some time off from the kitchen. My guidelines were simple: the meal must have a healthy component, be something everyone will like, be served no later than 7:30 PM, and cost twenty dollars or less.
That first night we ate jambalaya at 9 PM. The ingredients had cost fifty dollars, and my son had taken a nap midway through making it. His ways were not my ways, but at least I had a helper.
When the kids were teenagers, my mother moved in with us and gladly took over most of the cooking. Those were the years of homemade biscuits and crispy bacon, grilled cheese, and BLTs with ripe tomatoes. She enjoyed the shopping, the planning, the prep work, even the cleanup. “If you love someone, feed them” was her credo.
Now the kids are grown, my mother has passed, and it’s just my husband and me. My cooking days, for the most part, are done. It’s my husband’s turn. He likes to make fish on Sundays, lots of fresh veggies and salads, and food on skewers with steamed rice. To me the two most beautiful words in the English language are “Dinner’s ready.”
Sugar Land, Texas