The air in my apartment is layered with scents of autumn rapidly collapsing and fading to winter: dry, stale heat bangs out of radiators that have been sleeping since April; leaves fallen from the tree outside have gathered in damp gutters and under car wheels, decomposing with a familiar fragrance I've never been able to describe. Almost smoky. A cross breeze cuts through from the open back door in the kitchen, setting me shivering with warmly scented memories of peppercorn bacon and brewed coffee on Sunday morning, Monday night bread baking with cinnamon and nutmeg, dinnertime garlic and onion, baking and sautéing filling my days. This happens to me a couple of times a year: I'm seized with a mad desire to cook everything. And it's not just in fall. The urge strikes at random. In the past, this has resulted in many loaves of quick breads and a couple of pasta dishes slightly more complex than the standard penne with Italian sausage, spinach and homemade marinara.
Traditionally, I've chosen safe-bet dishes. A necessity for someone who's actually terrified of cooking. Between the commitment — time, money, refrigerator real estate — and my high risk of abject failure and subsequent need to fall back on the shameful Spaghetti-O backup plan have kept me paralyzed for life.
Yes, there have been quick breads: beer bread, pumpkin bread, banana bread. There has been pasta. But something has changed this time around, though. Maybe it's the prospect of new love bolstering my spirit; maybe it's my new health and wellness coach, Lisa, lighting a fire under my ass; maybe I'm simply sick of my pants not fitting; maybe I've realized I cannot survive on Spoon Thai's green curry with chicken alone.
I made chili. My mother's recipe, deceptively simple but daunting nonetheless to a doting, reverent daughter, finally duplicated in my kitchen to faithful specifications, though not exactly exacting. In addition to the chili powder, cumin and diced tomatoes, her recipe adds cocoa powder for a richness and depth that was a mystery to us for many years.
I was astonished at the first spoonful: a taste of my onetime home in my now home. My mother used to send me back from holidays with frozen Tupperware containers of it, wrapped in foil and sealed in Ziploc bags, packed into my suitcase to enjoy for weeks after I returned home. And now here it was, made by me…an entire batch of it, all to myself.
It's like Christmas in a bowl…every day…for the past week. (That's one of the other reasons I historically don't cook: my culinary attention span has little time for those miles of cooking-for-one-leftovers.)
Christmas in a bowl, wrapped up with the gift of self-confidence when I realize, yes, I can cook.
This afternoon, I played with leeks and butternut squash. I'd never so much as touched either before today, and today, I'm cooking with both.
My first-ever blended soup experiment was not without stumbles: First, I forgot to buy celery. Then, I got all the way through peeling and cubing an acorn squash, only to realize the recipe called for butternut. (Peeling a lovely, scalloped-edge acorn squash is not an easy task, by the way.) But friends assured me that the soup could do without celery, and the farmers market is right across the street, so butternut was handily acquired.
The mixture did not boil over the top of my too-small pot. The blender did not erupt with scalding soup. And when I took my first taste…it was perfect.
God, I can cook. The astonishment could wear off, maybe.
Tonight, I'm making pork loin and homemade beer-bread stuffing (adapted from this recipe).
Maybe I'll settle in for a couple hours of work before I start in on dinner; I've officially done nothing to generate income today. The rent's paid through the end of November…
For all the reasons I'm cooking right now, I think there's one that tops them all: In my head, spending hours on a single meal somehow makes it okay not to be writing. Which is where I'm funneling my fear now.
My words have gotten me in trouble lately; if I'm not pissing someone off, then no one is really paying attention. There was once a happy medium. Writing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach; I dread sitting down to write as much as I do going to the gym to burn off all this food.
My fears of squandering time and money dissipate with every meal I make; I actually look forward to the challenge, because it's one I feel I have control over. Pulling that fresh loaf of bread out of the oven doesn't leave me emotionally exhausted. Even if I screw up the meal, at least I'll have tried. I'll at least have something to show for my efforts. Even if there's a big mess to clean up when I'm done cooking…at least it's well contained. At least it's just my mess. People don't get angry when you make them dinner.
The shopping, the chopping, the first taste from a wooden spoon, the whole meal arranged on a plate — this all feels safe and warm for the moment, makes me feel like I'm growing as a person. Writing doesn't bring me joy right now, and I'm trying to be okay with that. Creativity ebbs and flows. Needs can change like the weather.
To everything there is a season. A seasoning. Pass the pepper, please.