This Christmas I received a cookbook as a gift. It’s a new one by Ruth Reichl, who was the editor of Gourmet magazine until 2009 when they closed. The book is about those days after she lost her job. She found herself in the kitchen, soothing the uncertainty by preparing food she loved. I’ve been reading it like a novel, soaking in the beautiful words and pictures.
My own relationship with cooking is complicated. I love to cook and eat, but I’m often worried that I will mess up a recipe or produce something laughably inedible. These feelings can paralyze me to the point that I’m not sure I want to try. I open a container of pre-made guacamole from Trader Joe’s for dinner. The kitchen stays dark.
I’m a food writer for a local magazine, so it’s possible that I feel worse about this than the average person does. I’m a food writer because I’m good at eating and putting what I eat into words. Some chefs don’t meet my standards, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t meet them myself as a beginner.
When I first started living on my own, I had big plans about trying new recipes and making sure I had nourishing lunches for work during the week. I shopped aspirationally, adding barley and coconut flour to my cart. I’ve still never used either.
I started slowly. I bought jars of spaghetti sauce and chopped mushrooms and zucchini to add to them, along with freshly browned ground beef. I bought beets, already cooked, and added blue cheese and a drizzle of balsamic glaze. One day after work I stopped at the grocery store and bought shrimp because I was craving scampi. I walked through the store with my basket in one hand and my phone in the other, reading off a recipe I’d found on Pinterest. My hands still shook as I measured out ingredients. My heart still beat quickly when I had to complete a complicated step. But I began to cook for myself.
One night I had a friend over for dinner. She arrived a little early and we chatted as I got dinner ready. As I dished up our plates and set them on the table, I realized that I hadn’t been anxious as I cooked. Was it the distraction? I wondered, or am I truly less anxious about cooking with other people? I began to make mental notes.
As I paid attention, I realized that when other people were present, there was no question about whether or not we would eat. If I was with a friend, we would work together to make sure our physical needs were met. It was only when I was alone that I would make excuses for not cooking, or for feeding myself something incomplete. I wasn’t willing to give myself the same consideration as the other people in my life.
Sometimes I legitimately enjoy popcorn for dinner, but most of the time I’d rather have something delicious, something prepared with care and more than one ingredient, something you can’t find at the store. Most of the time, if I want to eat something like that I am the one who needs to prepare it.
It was a bit of a blow to realize that one of the reasons I don’t always cook for myself is because I don’t always believe I’m worth it. My body was betraying something my mind took a while to realize I believed: my needs were not as important as other people’s. After I realized this, I began to cry, wondering, soon after, if this might be part of my anxiety about cooking. It’s hard to cook for yourself with confidence when you’re not sure you deserve it.
After that, I began to cook for myself as a spiritual practice. I wanted to do everything in my power to communicate to myself that I am worthy of love and belonging (as Brené Brown would say). To me, that looks like pancakes on a weekday morning, dotted with frozen blueberries and topped with melted butter and a swirl of real maple syrup. It looks like bacon-wrapped, goat-cheese-stuffed dates from Shauna Niequist’s book Bread and Wine, even if there isn’t a party to attend. It looks like a smoothie with breakfast, and baked halibut with garlic butter, and freshly baked bread.
Many recipes caught my eye as I began flipping through Ruth Reichl’s cookbook, but I couldn’t help returning to one, “The Diva of Grilled Cheese.” Unlike most of the other recipes in the book, this one makes only one serving. After Christmas, I went to the grocery store to purchase the ingredients. I bought a white onion, shallots, and scallions (I needed Google to determine the difference), garlic, and thick-cut farmhouse bread. With the help of the deli manager, I selected a mature sharp cheddar, the kind that almost reminds you of a parmesan. Once home, I chopped until the onion tears flowed, following the recipe as carefully as I could. For the first time in my experience, my version looked just like the one in the book when it was done, piping hot and smelling like heaven. With every bite, I could hear the words of Mary Karr ringing in my ears: “You are loved, someone said. Take that and eat it.”