I was raised on fear of fat, and I came of age on fear of carbs. Food was treacherous, the rules forever in flux. Superfoods slipped in and out of fashion. Soy was the answer, soy was a shortcut to breast cancer. They said, “Eat only things your great grandmother would recognize,” except my great-grandmother was alive for the canned food 60s. Suddenly everyone loved food out loud, and still no one could agree on it. “Have all the sugar you want as long as there’s no fat” was followed closely by, “Have all the fat you want as long as there’s no sugar.” I went high protein and was sweaty and fidgety. I drank diet sodas until they said they would hollow out my bones. Coffee was certain death or the key to immortality; stay tuned.
My teens and 20s were a smorgasbord of short-term deprivation and midnight cheeseburgers. When faced with my first adult kitchen, I cobbled together meals in an edgy stupor. I could barely afford what was in my cupboard and refrigerator and worried I would destroy them before they sustained me. I bought cookbooks and stared at the recipes, willing them to work. I emptied jars of sauce onto hot pasta. I microwaved frozen dinners. My repertoire expanded, my table filled with guests and plates full of supermarket pesto on hot rice, chicken breasts kissed with salt and pepper. An ex boyfriend taught me how to over-season eggs until the curds were rusted with Old Bay.
I was raised by women who elicited moaning silence at their tables, who could always fill a party with bated-breath revelers ogling the spread. When I visited Baltimore for a weekend my mother made Moroccan chicken, eggplant caponata, smooth-topped French macaroons with a slick of raspberry jam in the middle. She pressed warm loaves of quick Cuban bread into my hands.
It is hard to teach a thing you simply know how to do. I cannot teach you how to breathe. I can just sit in front of you, inhaling and exhaling, hoping you can pick up a cue. So many times, I pulled a chair into the kitchen and babbled to my mom as she slowly changed the air of the house, stung it with pepper and chocolate and yeast. Watching her fearlessly tackle any recipe, I learned how to be brave. I learned how to offer love as sustenance. I did not learn how to cook.
I practiced. The recipes became more complex, dinners grew more triumphant. Life became busier, time and energy at an increasing premium. I moved far away from my mother’s kitchen and began to build my own home. Even as my cooking improved, I still didn’t feel fed. Beautiful things in life are ephemeral, full of instinct. Those bright-eyed moments when you realize you’re falling in love. The serotonin rush of closeness with friends. The way the world cracks open and expands when a conversation blooms. The tickley gut punches that nudge you to make a choice in your life. Eating and cooking can be like this. I wanted those instincts. I wanted to nurture an appetite and meet it. I wanted to find peace in the kitchen. I was looking to fall in love.
When I learned how to cook, I learned how to eat because I could finally eat exactly what I wanted, crafted to my own particular hungers. I could identify a need and meet it. There is power in this, as there is power in a roaring hot stove and a sharp knife. There is power in staring down a nearly empty fridge and knowing exactly how to turn it into what you most want.
Like a lot of things, I thought I should just know how to do this. Like a lot of things, the reality of not knowing eventually wore me out until I surrendered. I needed more than recipes, more than menus. I needed a gentle guru, and I found her when I gifted a copy of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler.
“If our meal will be ongoing, then our only task is to begin,” she says in the introduction. A profound truth is instantly revealed: The secret to cooking, like the secret to nearly everything, is to start cooking.
Adler starts with boiled water. In her instructions on tasting the water throughout the boiling process, she says, “If there is anything that you can learn from what is happening, learn it.” I took her advice and started measuring salt with my fingertips. I salted my water until it tasted like a mouthful of ocean. I let go of the flaccid boiled vegetables of bygone diets, austere and dressed only in steam. I boiled tightly wound brussels sprouts until they went emerald and lapped up salt, until they bloomed. I boiled little summer zucchinis and drowned them in olive oil, tossed them with ripped anchovies and parmesan.
My life was transformed by the chapter “How to Stride Ahead,” which proclaimed:
“Hot vegetables is a doctrine every bit as encumbering to good vegetable eating as pressure to leave them raw until right before dinner.”
I no longer had to arrive in the kitchen with raw ingredients waiting to be turned into a meal every night, mocking my end of day exhaustion and redirecting my thoughts towards takeout. “How to Stride Ahead” is the kitchen hand-holding I’d always longed for. It starts with buying and subsequently breaking down “the leafiest, stemmiest vegetables.” Vegetables are sliced and sent into a 400-degree oven to achieve roasted perfection: caramelized edges, plumped centers, tasting intensely of themselves. Stems and leaves are transformed by olive oil and garlic, so they “lose their moral urgency and become one of the most likable ingredients in your kitchen.” A week that starts with a refrigerator full of roasted vegetables is a changed week, threaded with comfort and ease even when everything else is chaos.
I ate roasted vegetables cold, piping hot, and at their blissed out room temperature. They aged like wine, more glad and flavorful with every day that they rested. My husband and I bit into fat toasts ripened in browned butter, blanketed in roasted beets, onions, a tangle of garlicky kale. I smashed roasted squash into hot pasta, doled out triumphant bowls of salad topped with toasted seeds, raw herbs, a heavy drizzle of olive oil. Dinner took five minutes. It was like I’d hired my past self as a personal chef.
“How to Catch Your Tail” taught me to save. I saved the last dregs of oil in a jar of anchovies, the drippings from a pan of roasted brisket, the seeds from a gutted squash, the snappy stems of parsley. A bit of last night’s meal was the potion that fueled the next one: previously unloved bits and pieces became the core of soups, stews, and salad dressings. Cooking took on a delicious logic; my kitchen, and eating, hummed along happily, an engine requiring me to simply be present and turn on the oven.
A chapter on “How to Have Balance” is a chapter on bread and cheese that strips both of their misbegotten villainy. “How to Season a Salad” dismantles the typical lettuce-based bowl and makes space for parsley salad, salads of roasted broccoli and vinegared onions, salads with sliced oranges dusted with flaky salt and torn olives. “How to Live Well” promises velvety, transcendent beans and folds them into pastas, soups and cassoulets. Instead of outlining grocery lists or menus, “An Everlasting Feast” activated my creativity. Imagination and attention became the most essential cooking tools, ones that I could wield no matter what ingredients were in front of me. I stopped eating lettuce salads, a thing I’d always found boring. I moved warm toast and ricotta to the center of my plate. I cooked beans with parmesan rinds, reedy leek tops and garlic cloves. I pickled onions and restocked my olive oil. I was free.
This is cooking for a world where “you can be as well setup to celebrate as to survive.” A full chapter is dedicated to learning how to salvage kitchen failures and transform them into triumphs. The book walks the intrepid home cook through how to eat well with nearly bare cupboards or in the throes of natural disasters. A full recipe is presented, composed only of ingredients from an earthquake kit. And when the storm has passed and the burnt eggplant has turned into baba ganoush, why not invite everyone to your table to rejoice? The chapter “How to Drink To Saints” soothes the anxious host with the reminder that “We are all hungry and thirsty and happy that someone’s predicted we would be and made arrangements for dealing with it.” I treat these lines like a pre-party meditation, a reminder to unkink my tight shoulders and pass out plenty of drinks.
I love glossy cookbooks with beautiful pictures and recipes, but I rarely cook out of them. I eye their colorful spines and crack them open when I’m bored or deeply energetic or some buzzy combination of the two, ready to read or brave a recipe. An Everlasting Meal does not look like a cookbook. It’s the size of a paperback, all text, and many of the recipes are two sentences long and tucked into a paragraph. My copy is stained and bedraggled; it wears my love like a childhood stuffed animal with a rubbed off velvet nose. I reread it a few times a year, usually at the start of a season.
I set aside last Sunday to reread this book, and I was chiding myself as I wrote this for cooking all day instead. But when I traced my day, An Everlasting Meal was everywhere. It was in the bright spring vegetables I boiled to tenderness and dressed with anchovy oil for Sunday lunch, the pot of cranberry bean soup I put on the stove because I was already in the kitchen, so why not begin? I started the beans in the salty dregs of the vegetables’ boiling water, cut with red wine and spiked with garlic. I roasted a brisket for dinner and scraped the plump onions, rich with beef fat, from the bottom of the pot and saved them for next week’s stew. I roasted beets and carrots and tossed them with cous cous.
I have incredible relief, multiple times a day: I am wonderfully fed, and deeply calm during the process of making that happen. My diet tastes like home, full of rich flavors and ease, crisp edges and fat pinches of salt. It is affordable and untrendy and created by a relaxed human, because I am never nervous in the kitchen thanks to Tamar Adler, my gentle guru. In the kitchen, I am messy and happy and I breathe deeply.
Photo by Sprogz, CC BY 2.0