Solace in the kitchen

Simmering (Photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage . . . (playin’ hook-y ;o))

The kitchen used to be enemy territory for me.

I grew up with a mother who cooked out of necessity. I did not see joy in her face while she prepared meals.

My father, on the other hand, saw cooking as one of the highest creative pursuits. He could cobble a spread from whatever happened to be in the refrigerator, making up the recipe as he went along. But the “right” creative way was his creative way—so helping him in the kitchen meant criticism, not freedom to experiment.

Add to this scenario my general ineptness at all things domestic—ironing, sewing, frosting a cake—and you have a gal who learned to work hard and smart at her career, ordering takeout. My early kitchens were somewhat desolate places. My refrigerator was a great place to store champagne and milk for my morning bowl of cereal.

In my twenties, living in Chicago, having friends over for dinner meant recreating some sense of home. I realized that I needed to master at least a dish or two to make this happen. My old friends still joke about how many renditions of Chicken Acapulco they were forced to endure. It was good, solid, edible food and the one dish I could make without error. I’d pair it with Pillsbury crescent rolls and green beans—and call it a feast. I can hear all you foodies howling with laughter.

It’s not that I did not try. It’s that my tries resulted in colossal failures friends and family laugh about to this day. The beef stroganoff that called for a cup of bullion. I did not realize that meant a cup of liquid. I added a cup of cubes. I believe we ended up ordering Kentucky Fried Chicken that evening.

The lemon squares that contained a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon (At 17, I did not realize T meant tablespoon. But, I could write you a mean essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Alas, I could not take essays to the family potluck.).

The spaghetti sauce to which I added raw meat, thinking it would cook in the sauce.

I could go on but I’ll spare us both the horror.

You know this story has a happy ending because of its beginning.

When I got married, I had someone I loved very much for whom to cook. Someone who loved to eat—and also enjoyed cooking. Someone who came from a culture where meals could take hours and day-long prep was not unusual. A culture where recipes were more often than not based on a touch of this and a sprinkle of that—handed down by word of mouth. Cooking was an art, yes. But a messy art. A less than perfect art. An experimental art.

Ah, I had come home.

It took years, but I learned. I practiced. I threw some things out and ordered Chinese. We ate some less than lovely Valentine’s Day cakes (the heart-shaped cake that wasn’t quite heart-shaped–more like a lovingly baked amoeba).

But, mixed into my repertoire was a damn good arroz con pollo. And later, a flourless chocolate cake shaped like–well–a cake. Even competent cooks have their limits; I’ve sworn off heart-shaped anything.

The list grew. Stuffed portabellas. Coq a vin. Pumpkin pancakes.

I found myself feeling competent in the kitchen. Calm. Soothed, even.

When I came to a rough patch in life over the past several years, I was surprised to find myself heading to the kitchen. Cooking has become a creative, but fairly predictable, art for me.

When you’re navigating a divorce in which your ex’s attorney seems to have made it his life mission to bankrupt you, life is out of control.

But dinner is not.

Carrots do not talk back. They do not sue you. They do not scream obscenities at you. They, instead, make a nice crunching sound as you cut them into symmetrical rounds. They line up neatly on the cutting board and sizzle appreciatively when they hit the warm olive oil in the sauté pan.

When your loved ones are sick and dying, and the curveballs just keep coming, you find yourself wanting to make the perfect meringue. Because chemo can fail. Mothers and fathers will die. Physical and emotional pain will come. Sometimes out of nowhere. But a meringue does what it is told. Egg whites and sugar mix together to form predictable, solid peaks. Biting into it, you know what to expect. A crunchy exterior and heavenly sweet interior, both of which melt in your mouth. A meringue does not disappoint.

What I’ve learned is that, in the kitchen, if you learn the basic rules, you can master the art of cooking.

Not so in life.

You can learn all the edicts you want. Rules change. People are fickle. The master plan is not yours to make.

So it is no surprise that when I found out my mother had died, I was in the kitchen cooking chicken. When my sister shared she had advanced stage cancer, I was chopping vegetables. And the first night alone after my divorce was final, I made myself flank steak, potato and parsnip puree, and green beans, topping it off with a phenom sparkling rosé.

I have found solace. In the crisp chop, the soothing sizzle, the effervescent fizz I am able to create in the kitchen.

Funny that the girl who used to fear the kitchen has learned to retreat from worldly woes there.

I wonder if we’d be a step closer to world peace if our “fearless” leaders made soufflé now and then.


22 Comments Add yours

  1. terseag says:

    I felt so sad after reading this. Life is definitely not for sissies. What’s even worse is that for every terrible thing that has happened to you, someone else has probably endured similar or worse. So more often than not you end up not sharing your story, less it ends up looking like a sad-story contest… So I am glad that you shared yours, cause from all the way across the big Atlantic I feel humbled by the fact that in spite of what you are dealing with, and have done, you are an inspiration to work with and know: bubbly, incredibly competent and highly professional.

    I have found that where food used to be a comfort, it has become my most dreaded enemy: I have gone from being someone who could eat whatever she liked without gaining weight, to a person whose emotional ups and downs have twisted this once comforting habit into a dreaded fight to remain in control.

    Keep your chin up, Kay. One day – when my current dream position becomes a permanent one – I’ll move to Chicago and we can carve pumpkins together.

    1. candidkay says:

      I will take you up on that offer to carve pumpkins! And anyone who is brave enough to attempt mountain climbing has her control issues under control . . .

  2. blmaluso says:

    You made me realize that cooking is such a comfort to me… I especially love the aromas of dishes I consider “Autumn Food”. Roasted Turkey with Stuffing, Beef Stew, Chili, Apple Cake, Pumpkin Bread and pies. The list could go on and on, because I associate so many foods with memories and traditions.

    1. candidkay says:

      Autumn food is comfort food! I agree. I’m finding myself making chili, corn muffins, pancakes–all things I eschew in the summer and spring months.

  3. Prithi says:

    “You can learn all the edicts you want. Rules change. People are fickle. The master plan is not yours to make.” Love that statement, it’s so true with Life, so much is beyond our control. That is why I think all of us need a hobby or pursuit which we can retreat to, where we have that illusion of control, while our mind retreats and recovers from whatever has affected it. I am glad you found cooking as that theurapatic pursuit.

  4. I come from a family of cooking enthusiasts. My mum, her sister, my dad, both my grandmammas…list goes on…so I never I got a chance to cook until I stepped out of home for school…I could never go beyond being the sous chef at home!, Now that I am on my own, I am beginning to love it. Yes, it gives solace…takes my mind off a million things…keeps me happier…and if something turns out to be delicious…it just works well enough for me!

    1. candidkay says:

      So glad to hear you’ve “graduated” from sous chef:)

  5. suemclaren24 says:

    In a recent blog entry (Tabitha the Tortie, Oct. 14), I noted that my responses to stress tend to cleaning and cooking. When my Dad died, all I wanted to do was make cinnamon buns. There is truly some solace in doing something predictable; a sense of control peeks through along with satisfying results. Carrot sticks are as good a tool as any. 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      Ah, but cinnamon buns are far wiser.

  6. paulmiller74 says:

    This was a pleasure to read. No matter your relationship with the idea of ‘kitchen’, once you have found the solace of it, you understand its comforts. A beautiful thing about being human is that we can employ our imaginations to transform the necessity of eating into a rich, evocative experience. Cheers! I’m happy you found this pleasure before you really needed it so much.

    1. candidkay says:

      I am too, Paul! Happy I discovered it in happier times . . . thank you for the kind words.

  7. My mother was a no nonsense cook. A meat, a veg, and a starch plus salad and carrot sticks, every night. Once in a while, a casserole. After he retired, Dad took to cooking dinner often. Too bad I was out on my own and too far away to drop in for Dad’s cooking. It was so much better. Sometimes I do get into cooking or making bread, especially when kid duties are light.

    I totally hear you about the way life can go. And so sorry to hear about the divorce stuff. A good friend just finalized hers (and got hosed a bit I think). But now there are issues with child visitation… And on it goes.

    1. candidkay says:

      Yes–at my house, salt and pepper were considered spices:) But, I think that’s the way it was in the Midwest then . . .

      Sorry to hear about your friend. So many times it seems like divorce should be an end but the ick continues on.

  8. andmorefood says:

    I always wait for more of your writing. I’m sorry about the divorce and how messy it’s being – but I’m glad you find solace in the kitchen.

    when I feel terrible stressed out, I give up trying to sleep and bake it all out, and go to bed smelling of cookies or cake and suddenly it all seems better.

    I once forgot to bloom gelatin before using in a no-bake cheesecake, which meant it was essentially crunchy teeth-cracking bits of gelatin encased in cream cheese. but we all learn 😀 (and you find out who your friends are)

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh! I used to say the nicest thing you could say to a writer was that she made you laugh, cry or think. But I think you’ve topped that. “I always wait for more of your writing” is the ultimate. Thank you!

      You are right. The smell of cookies brings you home no matter where you are!

  9. My husband tells the story of when he was about 21 and invited a girl over for dinner. He was going to impress her with his best Rice-a-Riso recipe. So he added the rice to the butter in the pan, sizzling with all the other ingredients and just fried it until it was supposed to be done. It smelled good and he served it up. Only problem was, he’d forgotten to put any water in the rice!

    1. candidkay says:

      I’m guessing this may be one of the reasons she passed and you were able to snap him up:) LOL.

      1. No, she married him, actually! I met him much later in life and well post-divorce, when he had learned to cook very well.

      2. candidkay says:

        I think you got the better end of the deal:)

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