This week, I find myself cooking out of habit, then eating nothing or just picking around the perimeter of each nicely plated meal before packing the remains in plastic tubs. I have no appetite but am fixing delicious things, increasingly complex productions that fill my dollhouse-size apartment with perfect smells. In an effort to rationalize this situation, I shift from stewing over heartbreak to focus on science. While earning a nutrition degree, I learned we crave fatty things for their esters – compounds that carry smell and impart taste. From smell and taste, we derive pleasure and comfort, and from fats we derive fuel. The stuff that keeps our mechanical bodies going also plumps our hearts like pillows, in the figurative as well as literal sense. Fats are comforting and clogging. I also learned we crave sugar when there is a lack of sweetness in daily life. All I can stomach right now are Pink Lady apples and endless cups of honeyed hot milk. This indulgence and dependence is risky – artificial sweetness is inevitably succeeded by a bigger crash
This week, my heart requires plumping and sweetening, deflated as it has become. And, as the temperature drops outside my house, cold bleeds through the bricks and insulation, pouring down the walls and pooling on the floor. All this cooking serves a secondary purpose, heating my rooms when the radiator will crank no higher. Standing at the sink to rinse a stock pot midway through a recipe that builds through six finicky steps, my knees and thighs felt cold. I looked down, but instead of pants soaked by soapy water, I discovered a stiff wind blasting between the cupboard doors, cold tonguing between plates and bowls and glasses to reach the warmer kitchen air.
Last week, I was in love, and believed someone was in love with me, too. This week, half of that equation has changed. Meals were central to our courtship, and it makes sense that in response to our rupture, eating seems like a traitorous chore. When we were still strangers, we bravely prepared home-cooked dinners, exposing taste, appetite, and personal space, and gradually learned to please each other’s bellies. I discovered his particular affection for five-spice chicken, which he didn’t know he liked until I served it the first time. He discovered I like sitting side-by-side at the table, instead of distantly across. I liked to crook my legs and tuck my toes beneath his right thigh while we ate. We rarely went for dessert, opting instead for dwindling conversation then went to bed together, laughing that if we twisted into some languid position or other, we’d avoid crushing supper while we got it on. Afterward, we always struggled to resist curling up for the rest of the evening. Dinner deserved at least a chance at digestion and it was unfair to expect chicken and broccoli to triumph over gravity while we lounged horizontally.
I have lived alone most of my adult life, or shared houses with friends who didn’t share my diet. At dinnertime, even those crowded spaces felt solitary. For years I was vegan, and communal kitchens were like forks on a production line, with my supper and everyone else’s moving together through chopping carrots and steaming rice before branching off; beef to the left, tempeh to the right. Eventually, I invited meat back into my life, and while relearning how to cook with animals in the picture, I hit my stride in front of the stove. Until then, I’d believed I was a utilitarian cook at best, perhaps because my vegan life was fraught with a feeling that things just weren’t right. Many dishes were delicious, my budget was easily balanced, and my ethics were sound, but I was troubled by food-based isolation, a sense of calculated walling off, and an inability to fully share. It felt like the substances meant to sustain me were somehow letting me down.
Once I returned to an omnivorous life, I felt closer to myself, but the more earnestly I cooked, the more evident it became which piece remained absent despite the return of meat and cheese. I examined my kitchen tableau like a table laid for entertaining. Hands on hips, apron still guarding my hostess dress, index finger tapping my bottom lip while I took stock: wine glasses, water goblets, napkins squared, forks lined up and knife blades angled toward the plate. What have I forgotten? Ah, yes. A guest. Cooking for, and with, someone changed everything; a second stomach at the table made the place setting complete. A solid division of labor had him bringing favored ingredients and me transforming them into awesome meals. Oh my gosh, we ate some pretty sweet things. I believed those meals, infused with my affection, were feeding my partner’s heart.
Our apartments are tiny, and we never really learned to move in concert through cramped kitchen space, but there was a charm to reaching under and over, bending to retrieve a pan from the drawer just behind his calf and drumming his leg with my fingers like, “shift a little, please, so I don’t get you with the corner.” It seemed curious that after he enjoyed hundreds of meals at my table and insisted upon washing up after each one, he still searched my entire kitchen before locating the soap bottle beneath the sink. Every time. And, it was bizarre the way he stacked clean dishes to dry in the adjacent sink, wine glasses cup-side up collecting dirty water, followed by upright carving knives then cast-iron frying pan on top. The prissy, orderly me wondered how we would fare living together someday, and if our affair would end with him finally losing his shit over the way I position the pepper shaker just so, or me bolting from the tiger-pit of knives and broken glass assembled nightly in our sink. But, I loved that in exchange for cutlery-based incompatibility, the second portion of the meals I prepared went someplace more rewarding than a container for tomorrow’s lunch.
I’ve thought, and written, a lot about food and the ways I use it to gauge relationships and plot their intricacies. I belong to a cohort of women who jettisoned Home Ec. and took pride in not knowing our way around the kitchen. Our mothers typically learned to cook to keep husbands happy and kids well-fed. Most of us didn’t have, or appear to want, spouses or babies any more than we wanted a recipe for Sunday roast with all the trimmings, and got by on one-pot meals and knowing which label dresses a really nice French wine. Not sewing, not knitting, and sucking at poached eggs. These inabilities were badges of honor, as though we had transcended the system that hitched our elders to undervalued work within the home. Then, in our twenties and thirties, we mastered those skills after all, ostensibly empowered since we opted to learn household proficiencies instead of having the domain imposed.
My girlfriends and I began seeking serious partners at roughly the same time we took an interest in grilling techniques and making jam. I haven’t asked these ladies about the process that ultimately landed them good men (and women), but I expect their transition was similar to mine. I didn’t wake up one morning, ready to embark on a husband hunt fit for the worst variety of chick-lit. Rather, I began to sense that, like the rare steak, Stilton cheese and butter cookies I missed during the Years of Vegan, relinquishing my stubborn solitude and sharing my days with a partner might be rather tasty. I admitted that I’d snubbed homemaking and settling down like they were signs of being lazy or giving up. And, I admitted that not only was cooking-for-one really fucking lonely, it was ridiculous to sustain solitude simply to make a point. And so, I invited risk and chance to dinner, and on special occasions, I served my own heart.
There is another pattern here, beyond using food as an emotional decoder. By making things official – deliberately tackling recipes; dating on purpose and with intent; enrolling in a class; writing stories about it all – I have bolstered vulnerabilities and reinforced weak spots that would otherwise feel recklessly unprotected. In January, I begin pastry school, where I will learn the ratio of flour to butter to sugar, the correct method for folding in egg whites, and how to laminate a delicate dough. I will master the foundation for items I already excel at (desserts and treats) and the dinner course my partner and and I rejected in our haste to shuck our clothes. The program is the ghostly legacy of once hot, now lukewarm, soon to be chilly love. Months ago, he paid my tuition, a generous birthday gift, and we joked about the mile-high cakes I would make when our birthdays roll around next year. It’s a wry twist that the table we shared now rests on scorched ground. And, that he has ultimately footed the bill for training me to woo his successor with sweets when someone draws a chair up to take my last love’s place.