Are you the kind of person who cooks full meals for yourself when you’re home alone?
My grandmother was. During the time she and I were familiar—the last 31 or so years of her life, she would cook a rotating menu of about four meals. She’d cook them and then eat them, sitting at a 1960s-green barstool across the way from the TV, watching Frasier or Larry King, or her favorite movie—Pretty Woman. When I went to visit her, as I frequently did first as a college student, then in my early Atlanta years, and finally as a grad student, I knew to expect mostly either beef-vegetable stew, or chicken salad and boiled potatoes that were somehow delicately flavored. If she expected the preacher for supper, there would be banana pudding or chocolate pie.
I know I’ve written a good deal about my grandmother and the food she cooked. I’ve done so because she’s still a part of me, because I still miss her occasionally, and because this is how I still think of her: standing in what she called her “one-butt kitchen”—it was very small—poised with a wooden spoon or a knife in the air, asking me what I thought of that Katie Couric.
(The kitchen was so “one-butt” that my mother had to teach herself to cook because my grandmother wouldn’t let anyone else in there, really, as long as she could manage for herself).
I’ve come to idealize the woman some, to wonder how I compare. For years I’ve done this.
In some ways, I can’t. At 19, I was trying on various predictable forms of activism, self-loathing and debauchery within the well-appointed terrarium of a college campus designed for just such activities. I was not harvesting several acres of cotton as a widow with a toddler and the help of one field-hand girl. I didn’t elope at 16 in trembling fear of my domineering father’s reaction. I didn’t grow up in charge of peeling and boiling pounds of potatoes on the farm each morning for dinner (that’s the noonday meal, kids) for my army of brothers, sisters, father and mother.
I live with the gentle nostalgia and workaday frailties of someone who grew up suburban and privileged, and I’m mostly not so foolish as to romanticize experiences I didn’t have.*
My parents did teach me to cook. An early memory involves my dad holding his hand over mine as I seesawed a rocker knife across a carrot to yield quarter-rounds. Another: Kneading bread dough standing on a chair next to my mom and learning to proof yeast in a sweet, earthy mixture of melting butter and hot water. Later, how to sauté an onion. Cook rice. Bake chicken. Get creative with ingredients. How to drink red wine, white wine. Make a roux. And from a very early age: How to tell and listen to long, drawn-out stories over a long, drawn-out meal involving all of these elements.
I grew up loving everything about a real meal, from the preparation (“Do you have your ‘me’s in place?'” my culinary-school sister got us all to say,) to the silly singing party that would develop over dishes late in the night. I married a man who appreciates all these things, too; can’t imagine having partnered up with someone who didn’t get the excitement of a new recipe, the thrill of dressing up to eat out somewhere fancy every now and then, or of making loud, quasi-grunty noises of appreciation over individual bites—the last of which I never even realized I did until once in the company of someone who never made noises over his food, ever. This person laughed at me. I didn’t understand what was so funny. In some ways, my spiritual kin will always be other people who kind of live to eat. I just kind of imagine that people who don’t and I will circle each other always, like wary alien life forms, trying politely not to disdain one another, but never ever really understanding the other and knowing full well we never will, not really.
My husband cooks a lot better than I do; it was part of how he wooed me successfully: with homemade Thai dishes dripping with succulently-spiced coconut milk and the best homemade grilled burgers I’d ever had before or since.
But when I’m away and he’s by himself for dinner, Marshall will eat popcorn and chips and salsa and call that supper. Or microwaved burritos and saltines. Or frozen pizza and half a can of Pringles. Or, I swear to you, some unholy combination of all of the above.
Tonight he’s out of town, on a camping trip with some friends—and I realized that I almost never eat peanut-butter crackers and cookies for supper. Unless it’s very late at night and I’m nothing but a ball of exhaustion, I can’t bring myself to stand at the counter, grazing on chips and mixed nuts and ice cream and say, “Yep. That’ll do.” Don’t get me wrong: I have a host of other unhealthy habits, and it’s not that I look down on people who don’t look forward to every meal with the freakish childish glee that I do. Sometimes I envy them. These people have more time for other engaging, enlightening interests.
Nor do I go bat-shit wild. I don’t think I fetishize food like they do in the magazines and cable shows. I enjoy a hot dog and chips. I will eat half a can of Pringles faster than you can say, “Those don’t even really taste like anything!”
But for my own supper, I’ll throw together a tuna-melt and salad. Or beans and rice. Tonight, I made a ratatouille that was pleasing in all its chopping-of-vegetable preparation and satisfying in the two generous servings I gifted myself with. I talked with my mom, and she told me she makes real meals for herself, too, when she’s alone. Sure, sometimes those real meals are cheese toast, an apple and two Pecan Sandies, but there’s at least some small process of preparation. There’s the sitting down at the table with a plate and a napkin in her lap. Which is what I did. Which is what my grandmother did.
Something in this shared predilection makes me feel certain and secure. I wish I could gift this feeling to the insecure self of my 20s.** Sure, my life savings are kind of crap. Sure, I don’t know and likely will never learn how to kill, gut, and pluck a chicken. Let’s be honest: Even if I did, this skill would never sink deep into my muscle memory to live there, the way it lived in the strong arms and soft hands of my grandmother for ages and decades until the night she died, three years ago. I will never be a one-woman Foxfire, and that’s totally cool. (Unless it’s the aftermath of the post-apocalyptic shit going down, in which case, it won’t be cool, because I will be the first to die. In which case, really, though: Survival of the fittest is how it should be, right?)
But even unarmed with Depression-era rural survival skills, I feel rich and I feel strong tonight thinking of this: of the three of us women, each alone in our kitchens, chopping or toasting or steaming up dishes, and then sitting down to eat them, alone and content. There’s some kind of mettle in that. Some kind of strength.
*Mostly. I also live with the certainty that I don’t really have many personal tales worth telling because of the way the lives of elders on both sides of my family have calcified into legend. I mean, compare the following recounted teenage memories:
A. “I’ll never forget my uncle sneaking me out of the house to go see Count Basie in New York.” —my other grandmother before her death
B. “I’ll never forget dancing like a wanna-be hippie maniac while seeing Rusted Root play as a local band in Pittsburgh.” —umm, me.
**Now, in my 30s, I’m endowed with a whole new insecure self!