Last night I had this image of grief as a molten, bubbling, red-hot river of volcanic lava, unceremoniously destroying everything in its path and reshaping the landscape underneath. The image came to me as I was eating dinner and thinking about my relationship to food, and specifically the kitchen, in the last few years.
In my single days I used to cook for myself and have people over for dinner on a regular basis. When Kaz and I started dating, I cooked many meals (as any woman who’s good in the kitchen would). Cooking for him felt different than cooking for friends. It felt romantic and at the same time a bit old-fashioned. I would often think of my mother, who did most of the cooking in our family and was great at it. Kaz was an old school type of man. He loved both eating the food and watching me prepare it. Part of our courtship happened in the kitchen.
Once he became sick, he asked me to be in charge of his nutrition. I remember him coming home one night with some Cancer cookbooks and handing them to me. My job as “resident cook” had become official, and I took it very seriously making shitaki mushroom burgers, sweet potato soup, ginger lemonade iced tea, homemade granola with flaxseed, blueberry pancakes, apple pie, carrot cake, oatmeal cookies, white chocolate raspberry cheesecake, and more.
One of the more painful aspects of his illness was how it affected his appetite and ability to taste things. At a certain point, he started asking me to order out instead of spending time in the kitchen away from him. Towards the end his appetite became a barometer of how he was feeling, of how close the end really was. I tried every which way to get him to keep eating, even though the hospice literature said not to. I couldn’t help it. Eating was a sign of life.
After he died, I lost my own appetite for a while. Food was just this stuff that I put into my mouth. There was no real pleasure in it. Then the appetite came back, but not the joy of cooking. I actually threw out most of the pots and pans (the cheap non-stick kind), thinking I would get new ones (iron or stainless steel). The trouble is I never got around to it, which left me with one small pot, a baking dish, and a cookie sheet.
Even if I had pots and pans, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I had lost the motivation, the energy. Cooking seemed pointless. Iwould only buy pre-made food, became an expert at heating things up, and would eat while watching television in the living room. I used to wonder if I would ever enjoy cooking or care about my own nutrition again.
Lately, I’ve started caring. Last week I made my granola for the first time. Some of it burned (the smoke detector went off), but not all of it. I also forgot how much granola the recipe produces. I now have a bucket’s worth of granola to eat for the next few months.
Last night I cooked myself an entire meal of baked tilapia with pine nuts, lentils, and green bean salad. The smoke detector went off again, but the fish didn’t burn. I sat down to eat at the dining room table complete with one lit candle and a glass of water (second week night without alcohol). Instead of wolfing the food down, I ate slowly and savored each bite. I haven’t tasted my own cooking in over two years. It felt like being home again.
Cooking a meal and sitting down to eat it is something most people probably do on a daily basis without even thinking about it. For me, it was a moment, a sign of healing. I’m a long way off from having dinner parties, and I have yet to get through a meal without the smoke detector going off, but I trust these things will happen in time. Hopefully, faster than it takes lava to cool.