I haven’t cooked regularly in a long, long time.
For much of Kin and my relationship, we’ve spent a lot of time traveling, and that has meant a lot of dining out. But even when we were not on the road, we tended to eat at restaurants rather than at home.
In part, we tend to eat out because it is easy. In part, we do so because we work from home, and some days it’s the only time we leave the apartment. In part, we go out for dinner because we both love good food, and we’ve been fortunate to live in neighborhoods where there is a nice variety of great restaurants. Italian one day; Thai the next; maybe Caribbean on Wednesdays; then the sushi place on Thursdays – you get the picture.
In New York, we never even turned on the oven in our tiny apartment. We never bought any pots or pans. We had three small plates. For bagels – the extra for when one of the kids was in town.
Now that we’re back in LA, I’m starting to cook again. We’re going to try to limit ourselves to going out just a couple of times a week. It’s not so much about saving money, although I suppose that’s one way to frame the decision. Although certainly by the time I’ve outfitted a kitchen from scratch again, we’ll be deep in the hole. Nor is it necessarily about eating healthier. With the incredibly unpleasant exception to our recent cross-country trek, we do tend to eat fairly well even when we dine out.
On that drive, we listened to the audiobook version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. It was, I won’t lie, a little painful to hear his voice and his stories knowing that he’s gone. I wrote a little bit in my weekly newsletter about the thoughts I had – driving through middle America, eating at the kinds of terrible restaurant chains that pepper the interstates, seeing all the Trump signs – and listening to Bourdain talk about the crucial roles that Latinos played in his kitchens.
I’m not sure why (or even if) Bourdain prompted me to want to cook again. No doubt, his travel shows have always made me think about the beauty and the ugliness of the politics and the culture of food. I guess I want to see what I can do with a knife.
I bought a nice knife (although not one of the ones Bourdain recommends in his book).
I grew up around a great cook – my mom. Between her skills and my dad’s family owning a grocery store, there was, almost without exception, a home-cooked meal at dinner-time. My mom taught me how to cook. My dad boasted he was the one who first taught me to boil water while she was out taking night classes in order to become a US citizen. But it was my mom who taught me how to make a roux; how make a French omelette; how make the gravy from the drippings from the roast, some flour, and hot water.
Both my grandmothers were good cooks too. I kick myself for not asking them for the recipes to their specialities: my grandma’s chicken and noodles or her fried chicken, most notably.
Cooking is about caring and care-taking. I think I’d worn out all the care-taking I could possibly do when Anthony was sick and dying. I’d try to cook meals that were ostensibly good for his liver, one that could keep some weight on his bones as he grew ever-more emaciated. Shiitake mushroom omelettes cooked in marijuana butter. (Disgusting.)
After he died, Isaiah developed that monstrous appetite of a teenage boy, and there was no way I could cook enough to keep up with it. I resorted to more frozen foods. Cooking became one of the myriad of things that was just too overwhelming to do when Isaiah and I sunk into our grief and depression.
Cooking, for me, has always been about trauma. Hell, all of meal-time is, I suppose. I have some terrible memories of being forced to eat various cuts of meat at dinner, sitting at the table until my plate was clean. I have a tattoo that I wear on my forearm like an emergency bracelet that warns people not to serve me rice pudding – an illustration from When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne: “what is the matter with Mary Jane? / she’s crying with all her might and her main / and it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again.” I remember the first time, as a teenager, I tried to cook dinner for my family, my dad said it was awful. He didn’t even try a bite but just nursed his second or third Scotch, as he’d done with increasing dinner-time (and post-dinner-time) nastiness once our grocery store went out of business.
Perhaps this is partly why I enjoy dining out so much: you get to choose what you want. No one yells at you or makes you stay seated until you’ve cleaned your plate. Of course, I’m an adult now. I’m the one who’s cooking. I get to choose what I want. (I mean, Kin has a say, of course.) No one is going to yell at me if I don’t eat everything. And I’m hoping that if I approach this with a new outlook, I can think of myself as learning to cook rather than having to demonstrate some sort of domestic mastery – something I’ve never really been interested in attaining.
I don’t want to think of cooking as a hobby – food is sustenance, not past-time. But I do need to reframe so thoroughly how I have always thought about meals – how they are prepared and how they are eaten.