I constantly search for a way to quiet my mind once it starts whirling—a way to stop thinking, worrying, and fretting. At times when I feel overwhelmed, I need something to escape into. For many years, cooking has been a source of passion and comfort for me-- a way to sink into something else and change my focus.
Having been single for more years than I would like to count, it has too often seemed a waste, or at times too costly to do the kind of cooking I like to do. Nothing makes me happier than a crowd to cook for. I love all of it—the planning, choosing recipes, finding out who likes what, and then the shopping, preparation and unveiling the finished product. To me it is sharing love, giving of myself, and I enjoy so much watching others enjoy a good meal—and the camaraderie and laughter that accompany it.
I never questioned whether or not I would be able to cook…it was something I saw my mother and my grandmother instinctively do—with rarely a cookbook or recipe card in sight. I assumed it was a learned behavior like reading or riding a bike.
I do believe that part of that mentality is from a southern upbringing. At least from my mother's point of view, it seemed expected for a woman to be a good cook—it was all part of getting (and keeping) a husband. But for all of the backwards and sometimes time-warped southern traditions, I am thankful that learning to cook--feeling the need to cook is in my DNA.
In my grandmother’s tiny mountain cabin, which lacked a full plumbing system, and barely enough room for all of us to stand- let alone sit- in her house, she created aromas I am not sure have been replicated to date, even though my mother holds many of the recipes. Her gravy and biscuits still makes me ache for Sunday mornings, and even though I have watched my mother countless times, and have made more attempts than I care to mention, I can’t make them taste the same.
Because my mother grew up very poor, my grandmother’s cooking skills were put even more to the test, trying to stretch a thin budget to feed five children. Even still, my mother recalls my grandmother’s dishes with great admiration and nostalgia, and these same dishes have graced our table over the years.
And while growing up things in my house were strained, tough, and at times incredibly unhappy—some of the few peaceful times we shared as our disconnected silhouette of a family were around the dinner table. Looking back, it was almost as if when the kitchen timer sounded—all the chaos took a time out for dinner. My mother was and has always been an excellent cook, and many nights out of the week, we sat down to a great meal.
There is a calming effect with food—the anticipation, savoring, the focus. In the midst of the end of a workday, an argument, or just a swirl of activity, everything has to slow down, at least somewhat.
For me, cooking was always a little for daydreaming, too. I always imagined honing my skills, and how I would one day be a wife and mother, preparing meals for my family—my fresh start—to heal and begin anew. Over the years as that seemed further from reality, I still took comfort in cooking for my friends, coworkers, and my surrogate family members throughout all the cities I lived in.
And so many times when I was concentrating on the dreams that I didn’t see coming true, I didn’t realize that in many of my closest friend’s houses, the kitchen brought me a sense of family. I think of Judith’s kitchen in Atlanta, sharing so many meals in her home, the back of the house awash with light over early dinners of “mom’s special dish” (her son’s favorite). I think of “Nanny Rice” made with so much love in Debby’s kitchen in NC that I grew up associating it with comfort and her heart for me. I think of cooking meals at Patrick and Kristin’s house for friends and for their little girls, remembering when they still sat in booster seats giggling at me from across the table. And in just the last few weeks, my best friend Kim and I have shared and made each other’s recipes more than once. She is my teacher as of late, and I love knowing I have her expertise at any moment.
As I made a pot of homemade soup tonight at the end of a stressful day—after too many worries about money, work, and tough decisions- I found myself slowing down, as I chopped and sliced, sautéed and stirred. And a little bit of each of those kitchens—from my grandmother’s to Judith’s to Debby’s—and finally, my own-- helped me ease my mind and feel a sense of comfort and family.
And there is nothing more delicious than that.