Over lockdown, we accidentally perfected vegan fried “chicken” sandwiches.
You start by making a seitan—kneading vital wheat gluten with a chicken-free stock, flavor enhancers like nutritional yeast and liquid smoke, and then adding liquid fat a little at a time at the end to create a fatty, pull-apart texture. Roll up in tinfoil, and bake for an hour while you make a thick cashew marinade, spiked with lemon juice or apple-cider vinegar to replicate buttermilk. Soak the seitan in the cashew cream while you quick-pickle cucumber slices with salt, sugar and soy. Shred some Taiwanese cabbage and mix with egg-free mayo and homemade sweet chili sauce for a spicy coleslaw. Coat the seitan in a mix of cornstarch and cornflour, and fry until deep golden brown. Load the slaw into pillowy buns, add the picture-perfect crispy seitan, then pile high with pickles. It’s my favorite labor of love. And for months, we couldn’t share it with anyone.
My girlfriend and I love to entertain. Our main form of socializing is having friends round once or twice a week, cooking a needlessly elaborate meal, then watching anime or playing video games until someone announces they have work the next morning. During the pandemic, we swapped to sitting in parks once or twice a month, smoking weed or drinking coolers, huddled under extra sweaters in the winter chill. We were cut off from the simple act of making food with friends.
Eating together is a time-honored form of connection. There’s a reason it’s the centerpoint of so many festivals: feeding someone is offering a bit of your life to them. We spend the time and energy making something tasty, and we gift that energy to our loved ones.
Making the food together takes the connection even further. Cooking is a science—it’s combining ingredients and heat in ways that produce chemical reactions that cause maximum deliciousness. Add an acid to boiling potatoes to help them keep their shape. Put soft-boiled eggs in ice baths to stop the yolks cooking too hard. Mix flour with fat to avoid gluten development in a reverse-creamed cake.
Science fiction taught me that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. In the kitchen, my girlfriend is a witch.
Take an onion. That onion could become anything. Will we caramelize it and load it onto veggie burgers, savoring the deep sticky sweetness? Will we chop it finely and sauté with garlic, tomatoes, and basil for a pizza sauce? What if we slice part-way down, coat in batter and deep-fry to make a homemade blooming onion, turning a humble vegetable into a vibrant flower ? There’s a world of possibilities in that little globe. Cooking means deciding which spell you want to cast today.
And then you get to work, with the slicing and heating and organizing and planning (and cursing at the stove because your favorite burner mysteriously stopped working). What you end up with matters less than the steps you take to get there. Eating together with my friends isn’t what becomes most memorable; it’s the three days my girlfriend and I spend in the kitchen every year before Christmas, preparing each part of the final meal as a mini ritual. It’s crowding around the table with a bottle of wine, cracking jokes as we take it in turns to check on the waffles or flip the vegan bacon as we make a boozy brunch. It’s folding a pile of gyozas with random fillings and turning dinner into a giggly game of Russian roulette: who’s going to get the dumpling that’s just avocado?
More than that, enjoying the process of cooking reminds me that there’s beauty in change. I think of my body the same way.
Trans, after all, means “across, over, beyond.” It is a word of movement. My body does not and cannot stay the same. I gained weight during the pandemic, but it feels like a comfort blanket: a reminder to take up the room I deserve to. Personal services didn’t shut down for long here, so I gained tattoos—She-Ra’s sword, a willowy fuchsia, a falling star. My hair changed from blond to purple to brown; I grew it out, cut it off, dyed it silver and let it fade again. It’s currently unnaturally red. I haven’t had red hair in a decade. It’s a reminder that who I used to be is still part of who I am.
There will never be a single, unified endpoint that feels like me. That would undersell any future change that’s yet to come which shifts my body away from that. I’m like a hotpot, bubbling away on a burner: you add new ingredients as you eat current ones, and the broth itself changes through the course of the meal. All of it is tasty, and the change is part of the fun.
In the six and a half years with my girlfriend, she’s changed a lot. I’ve watched her grow — her body revealed its latent curves and left trails of stretch marks across her thighs, maps of where estrogen has worked its magic. She’s gone from wearing thigh-highs and miniskirts into flowy cardigans and pleated midis, and developed a love for bomber jackets. She’s more confident now. Her purest, unguarded laugh changed from a snort to a bird-like caw.
And she’s an uncompromising cook. She took our prized chef knife and handmade chopping board camping with us, and insisted on bringing dried porcini to make homemade mushroom stock for our campsite risotto. In 2015, we made mac and cheese in her tiny dorm room with cheese and milk; now, we make a vegan version with cashews, nutritional yeast and white miso in our tiny apartment kitchen. She constantly amazes me.
She’s watched me change too, and listened to my accent as it slips transatlantically from our native British to something more mixed. When we moved to Canada, we’d been together around two-and-a-half years; we’ve lived in this apartment for over three years now, half our relationship, but only the beginning of our life together. We bought each other engagement rings last summer, and they remain in the back of our respective sock drawers. We’re waiting for the right moment to transform from partners to fiancé(e)s.
Every evening we still watch pots boiling, smell the onions as they brown, and take the time to admire the culinary transformation.
And the more people who get to participate in that crowded kitchen magic, the better. Sharing food nourishes the body, but sharing the cooking nourishes my heart.