This is the introduction to a recipe from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Part cookbook, part memoir, it documents the year after the renowned food editor was laid off, along with her entire staff, when Gourmet magazine was shut down. For anyone who loves New York, it’s an evocative snapshot of the city’s restaurants and markets, for anyone who loves magazines, it’s a poignant tale of one more recession-era death, and for anyone who loves food, it’s an engaging document of a creative person finding herself again in the kitchen.
I read a lot of cookbooks. I meditate by putting greens in a skillet with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and chopped garlic. I unwind on a Saturday by going to the grocery store. It’s a good week if, when visiting my mom, I can tell her about a noteworthy dinner or two.
And when I describe to her a dish I’ve cooked, we both know it was “cooking for one.” I love cooking for friends and family, whether it’s decadent grilled sandwiches on those “visits with Ma,” or a whole party of savory finger foods. But I also believe one can enjoy home cooked meals alone. I disagree when someone says they see no point in cooking when they’re single. If anything, one should cook more for oneself when one is single, as a morale booster, to make it fun rather than torture to be alone.
Why in the world should being single mean missing out on one of the great delights of life?
I do consider cooking one of the great delights of life in spite of a lifelong issue with what they call IBS. It probably seems odd that someone whose digestive system is a land mine should prefer cookbooks to novels and biographies, and time cooking to time in front of the TV. But on the other hand, it must make perfect sense. When medicine has failed, the gentle philosophies of naturopaths in several cities have made no impact, and your waking life becomes an ongoing mental diary tracking the consumption of “trigger foods” and their impact, food is officially your most codependent relationship. You’re stuck with food, food makes you miserable and delighted, and you both can’t decide who’s to blame.
What else is left but to make love to it?
So I read cookbooks. I read them for flavor combinations. I read them to learn how other cultures create a meal, because there as many versions of what constitutes a “dinner” as there are countries on the map. I read them because in my family, cooking was a classic woman’s ritual, conversation about husbands and home life building over the din of stovetop and cutting board, the laughter of men and children in the background.
Recently a friend asked me why I loved cookbooks and then answered it for me with another question: Is it because it reminds you of your mom? I realized, considering my answer, that it wasn’t about my mom, who is an amazing cook, so much as the absence of the dads. This isn’t because I hate my dad or my uncles but because when I was a kid, subliminally I felt like they were always preoccupied about work and sports and other competitive things.
Whereas my mom and her sisters and their mom, my Grandma, were talking about home. They were talking about relationship, family, the reality of now – and whether it needed more liquid smoke. They were not talking about themselves. There is no competitive spirit in these women, for better and for worse. They’re all remarkably okay with the now and with who they are. No blue ribbons needed.
Of course this is a generalization- everyone jumps in the ring for something. But by and large, a conversation in the kitchen was very different than the one going on between the uncles and Grandpa in the living room. I think more than anything, that is what I cherish: the sanctity of it.
And the emotional resonance of it.
We all talk about work a lot, but there is very little emotional meaning in how that meeting went. There is ego, who accomplished what, whether it went the way you wanted. Compare that to how the kids are doing, the new fourth grade teacher, sweet potatoes vs yams, cheddar or Swiss on the casserole, Jeremy’s visit to the doctor, the plot of the book they’re reading… the nuances of daily life. In retrospect, their supposedly “limited” perspective as homemakers looks much healthier than those of us “working professionals.”
In My Kitchen Year, Reichl is married with grown children. But most of her entries describe cooking as a project to satisfy her curiosity, or to feed herself, rather than for a meal with her husband. This was simply the reality of a woman suddenly at home all day instead of working, trying to find herself at the stove. It’s a perfect articulation of the joy of cooking for oneself, although that was not the point of the book by any means.
For the same reasons, I come home from work and I cook dinner. For one. Yes, I strategize about pots and pans, no, I don’t cook elaborate three-course meals. But I chop the veggies and braise the meat and create a sauce for the pasta, just for myself.
I do this because, like the women in my family, and like Ruth Reichl, I find a blissful mental silence at the cutting board. Whether you work in an office or at home, at a computer or by raising your children, your active mind relishes a break.
It’s odd how time in front of the TV silences but doesn’t relieve the mind.
Time at the cutting board, however, always works.