Bakai Ata is nestled in a low valley surrounded on three sides by rolling hills which gradually morph into mountains under the line of the horizon. On warm summer nights I could watch thunderclouds settle with the cooling air of sunset onto the hills around the valley, and then the lightning would crackle and strike, deep into the ridge. After dark, the clouds would sink into the valley and release a deluge of rain. The morning after, the agaroad (the garden plot behind our house) would be heavy with raindrops on the tomato vines, the cucumber tendrils dripping their burdens into the soft warm earth below. I’d stare at the clean-washed sunrise and the wet garden from the outhouse, leaving the sagging wooden door wide open while I took a shit at dawn, shivering in the cool pastel light before the world woke up, before the sheep in the barn complained and someone came out to feed them.
In Kyrgyzstan, the matriarchal call for companionship inevitably comes with fermented dairy drinks and hot baked goods. There, my host mother, Jamilla, my apa, would bring out the fresh nan (bread) and the kymyz, a fermented mare’s milk with a salty, smoky taste which is revered in this area of Central Asia, and call us to the table. “We are eating! We are drinking tea! Come now!” she would announce, and the family would congregate, and settle down close together and savor the food and the nearness of each other. We were eight: Talent, the father; Jamilla, the mother; Ulan, the oldest son; Aliza, the oldest daughter; Malika, a teenage cousin; Abdullah, her little brother; and Daniel, the youngest. And me.
Back home — and by back home my heart still means: there in Bakai Ata Village, Talas Oblast, Kyrgyzstan, under Jamilla and Talent’s roof — on a grey day like this one in early December, I’d be back from tea and writing at my desk, an extra slice of hot bread next to me, and a piece of cookie or chocolate tucked in next to it on a napkin, an extra bit of food for later in case I got snackish while writing. I’d be hearing Aliza and Malika chatting about boys, whispers peppered with laughter while they cleaned up the table beyond my closed door, the dusty black kitten would be purring on my bed, and my host father would be outside my window, talking to a neighbor in his patient, low tones about the price of beans.
Daniel would pop his head in to ask me what I was doing, if I was free, could we make popcorn together? Apa would try to shoo him away with a laugh, She’s writing lesson plans, leave her alone. He would turn into a jester, trying to cajole us into compliance. More often than not he would win, and we’d make the popcorn on the stove in a skillet.
My second winter living in Kyrgyzstan, a young woman from the States came to visit me in Bakai Ata. We’d never met, but had known of each other for years and had been writing each other tentative, tender letters for months. We wrote a lot about a boy we had both loved, and about the tensions of loving our mothers. We wrote about uncertainty, about what we wanted from ourselves and from men, from love and careers. The boy we’d both loved was our initial introduction, but he was not our cause. He channelled us together at the beginning, and we ran together like water, two streams tumbling downhill toward the same breakpoint in the land, merging in the dark under a rock, unseen by anyone around us.
Eventually, Zoey came to visit me on a whim, interrupting an extended European backpacking trip to hop on a cheap flight to Bishkek to stay with me for a week. Everything with her was slow and deliberate, everything was watchful and cautious, and every touch was loaded with years of unexplored relief. In Kyrgyzstan, queer relationships are frowned on; supporting “the lifestyle” is illegal (pending ratification of a bill that’s been shuffled around for a few years). Local queers meet in speakeasy bars, hide their identities carefully, and vet friends thoroughly before coming out to them privately. Teens who have come out to their families are often disowned or ostracized, and often end up applying for asylum visas.
Zoey never identified as queer; she didn’t need to in her community. She just liked all kinds of humans, like she liked all kinds of food, all forms of dancing, and all the best jokes. I couldn’t be out even if I had wanted to be — it wasn’t safe to be out in Kyrgyzstan, not then. We hung out with my host family, flirting in the kitchen while we chopped vegetables, brushing past each other as we cooked, playing off of each other’s jokes.
I bought all the ingredients for tacos and we made tortilla dough together, rolling out the soft, fatty balls of dough into small rounds. Daniel would walk into the kitchen, ask if we’re making food to share with him. I’d translate for Zoey, and she’d laugh, and hand him the first tortilla, still hot off the skillet. He’d devour it, and then tell me it’s a very different kind of English muffin that I’ve made this time, and he likes it. Can he have more?
When I first moved into their home, I made English muffins, frying them on the stove out in the yard, a headlamp on to illuminate my frying pan. Daniel was smitten, and ate 17. That first batch of English muffins I made for them only numbered about 30 — all eaten by morning. Now, Daniel trusts my food offerings immediately, and while tacos may look unfamiliar, at least they have meat in them, unlike most of the strange American food usually I cook to share.
Talent and Jamilla are savoring the last bites of their tacos, and the spread on the table is decimated — the cabbage and some seasoned black beans are all that’s left of the taco feast. The kids are playing in the living room, the TV is blaring. Aliza usually does the dishes, but Zoey and I step in for her that night so she can study. When my arms are deep in the sudsy wash basin, Zoey catches my waist with her arm as she walks past me to put the food away, and kisses my neck.
No one in my host family recognized what Zoey and I shared during that visit; same-gender friendships in Kyrgyzstan are often very intimate and playful, male or female best friends hanging on each other, cuddling, touching each other while they talk. Behind closed doors that night, we lay on my bed naked, the heater blazing, and talked until we ran out of language, and carried on the conversation with our hands and mouths instead.
The night that we kissed for the first time, Zoey introduced me to a TV show called The Chef’s Table. Each episode looks at a chef who has innovated an approach to food that is uniquely their own and is [usually] centered in obsession. This particular show is remarkably beautiful in its cinematography and after she left I watched it all at once. I was lonely and homesick, hungry for greener flavors than those I was getting in my heavy Russo-Kyrgyz diet there in Talas. The food we ate at home was what was in season, what was cheap. That winter, our meals were thick with boiled beef and boiled sheep butt-fat, fried potatoes and cabbage. So after she left and I was alone in my bed again, I fed my insomnia with The Chef’s Table, binging on this show with both reverence and mania, finding myself present in faraway places, these kitchens where obsession and loner habits were lauded and welcomed.
I think it’s interesting that common parlance has taken on the words of food-related self-harm to talk about watching a TV show in one fell swoop. Here, it’s loosely appropriate — I was always a little hungry after my host family’s starchy meals; and there in the village, with no English-speaking kindred spirits, I was lonely and felt vaguely adrift. So in that place, I found myself pulled into a show about food, and about food creating community, and about the obsessions of particular chefs. I binged this show in a place where doing so was literally a form of physical torment, where I could not actually enjoy anything I was consuming — I could not indulge in making the delicious things I was seeing, because no ingredients they used were available, and our kitchen was makeshift, with no running water and a cantankerous two-burner stovetop that usually worked, but not always. In that kitchen, Zoey and I tried to feed our cravings for simple American cuisine, but despite our clever substitutions and meticulous adjustments and innovative ingredients from the bazaar, nothing tasted quite right. Not bad, just not what we’d been looking for.
This one episode in The Chef’s Table features a woman, a chef in Los Angeles, who ended up specializing in bread after a long culinary process of exploring and self-discovery. This chef is obsessive in her approach, intensely, repetitively, focused on adjusting and varying her methods until she achieves the end that she desires. She is undeterred, intent on a vision of what is possible, and she wakes up every morning early with one thought burning in her heads: how to improve her approach today, just a little. She methodically adjusts her approach to the ingredient prep, the proofing (rising time) of the dough, and the baking process. She weighs out her ingredients, marking the atmospheric variances in the daily weather, logging it all and judging the results by it and by her past notes, and then rises again the next morning before her young children are awake to start the process over again.
My host mom delegated her breadmaking and was not methodical about it at all — she cared deeply about the formula, but everyone had their own take on it. Each woman in our household had a different kind of loaf she’d produce consistently, very distinct to her own personality. Aliza, the oldest daughter, a soft-spoken loner who loved nothing more than satisfying her personal academic and fashion-related ambitions, made nan that was airy but a little dry. Malika, the teenage cousin who was adopted after her mother died of cancer, who laughed with me over rap music and swooned over Real Madrid players and K-Pop personalities, made the tastiest nan. Hers was soft and a little crispy from the oil she washed the crust with before baking. Jamilla, my host mother, was a kind-eyed Russian language teacher at the high school who fell strictly in line at work and then bitched about the director at home after hours with great panache and humor. She made her nan like Aliza, but hers was enhanced with vitamin powder. Her nan tasted like it was good for you, and it had a neutral texture that was best when hot, and went well with jam when cold.
My own mother’s breadmaking was like this too, but she stopped sometime when I was in high school, her attempts sidelined when our church community imploded over a scandal related to the pastor soliciting a prostitute and our denomination fell to pieces when systemic child abuse came to light around the same time, while her personal life began ballooning as her children grew up and grew more demanding. Her tall, soft whole-wheat loaves were but a fond family legend by the time I went to college, when I realized she was more of an older sister who needed my support and friendship than a mother who could care for me. I never learned how to make bread like hers, despite many afternoons watching her measure out pounds of flour into huge glass bowls on the counter, a measuring cup full of yeast proofing in sweetened water on the table behind us.
My brother, Joel, who also feels this burden of holding us all together, of holding her together, mastered the secrets, the perfect ratios that I never perfected. I think of his baking habits often, as I try to mimic the woman from the Chef’s Table episode, tweaking and adjusting my sourdough attempts, more often than not failing just as miserably now at making a decent loaf as I did in high school. Then, I could hand the dough over to Joel in frustration to finish. He was more patient with it than I was, waiting until it was soft enough to bake safely, gently folding it into pans and brushing the loaves of dough with butter before sliding them into the oven all in a row. Leaving for Kyrgyzstan was abdicating my family obligations to him all over again, just like I did with the bread. I left the States, and left the mess to him to tend when I smelled the storm of divorce and upheaval about to descend on the valley of my family, picking up and taking to the hills, ending up in Bakai Ata. Joel would call me and tell me how it was going, who had done what, who needed a call or a note from me, who he was hurting for the most.
Now, living alone here in this Virginian valley, close to my family but not too close, I have to finish the breadmaking process alone, with my mistakes clearly marring the product, and make notes for how to not repeat those errors next time. The bad loaves go in the compost, and I think about how appalled Apa would be, how she believed that god would frown on you for wasting bread, how it needed to be returned to the earth after being consumed. In Kyrgyzstan, we fed our leftovers to the animals. Nothing went to waste.
I’ve always turned to baking for comfort. It began early, with baking scones at the age of seven or eight for my siblings in the early mornings before our parents woke up, from a recipe I had memorized. I turned to pies later, learning how the chemistry of butter and heat and evaporation to create the perfect flake. I crafted my own recipe, only to be told years later by my aunt that I had recreated my great-grandmother’s award-winning crust recipe by accident. It runs in the blood, I suppose.
Now, as an adult, when grief unmoors me I return to the familiar patterns. How do you feel your way through your parents’ divorce when you are the one comforting your mother, when you are the mother to your brother, the aunt to your sister, estranged from your father before anyone else is?
Cream the butter with the sugar until the butter lightens in color and becomes airy.
Add egg yolks one at a time, whisking on high speed.
How do you sit with your brother in the hospital the night after he ODs on Tylenol, hoping to die and avoid a court date for property destruction inflicted during a bipolar manic episode? How do you carry the grief of almost losing this large boy, this baby brother whose birth you watched, whose umbilical cord you cut, who forgives you for abandoning to the chaos of your family when you left for college, but who can’t love himself?
Slice the last of the summer’s unripe tomatoes into thin slices, heat the oil in the pan.
Dip the slices into milk first, then the salty, peppery flour mixture.
Dip them back into the milk, then into the flour again.
Lay them in the oil, listen to it pop and hiss.
How do you tell your host mom that the grant you co-wrote for a fitness center at the school will be closed and never completed, because you told your counselor that you got raped and now you are being sent home because Peace Corps has no grey space for trauma victims to choose their own best path for healing?
Bring home peanut butter from the market in the capital.
Cream the peanut butter with sugar and eggs.
Add the flour and baking soda.
Criss-cross forks in the dough, leaving marks after it’s been well-chilled.
How do you tell your littlest host brother that you can’t come back to visit this year when he likes all your Instagram posts, sends you cat videos every day, and leaves you a WhatsApp video message begging you to come back home?
Proof the sourdough bread in the oven with a bath of just-boiled water on the rack below it.
Close the oven door and let it steam itself until it has doubled in size.
Remove the dough and lay it out on a floured surface.
How do you tell Zoey that you’re happy for her (when you are, you truly are, because you are in love with her when she is happy, and she is so happy now) when she calls you to tell you that she went back to that boy you both were getting over, that she’s moving into a little house with him, they’re planting a garden?
Take the first plums of the season and divide them in halves, remove the stones.
Quarter them, and melt butter in the frying pan.
Lay them in the foamy butter and the heat, splash them with cognac.
Listen to them sear and relax into soft, caramelized softness.
Transfer them into the pie crust rolled out flat on a baking tray, pile them in a dripping heap.
Lift the edges of the crust and tuck them in.
Bake in a quick oven until golden.
The woman on that Chef’s Table episode lost two restaurants she had started, lost a husband, lost an identity or two before she settled into bread, fell into her obsession with routine and the pursuit of highly calibrated perfection within that routine. She never quite articulates the grief from these losses in the episode, but you watch her turn with zeal to bread, watch her focus on it like a woman with nothing else left in the world to love.
Other episodes of The Chef’s Table speak of these experiences too:
An American chef loses his wife, and wanders her city in Japan where he moved to be with her, lost in a country where he doesn’t belong unless she is by his side. He falls into learning to cook Japan’s national fast food, ramen, obsessively submitting himself to the process of learning the traditional methods of preparing the broth, making the noodles. He becomes known as Japan’s foremost student of classic ramen, the chef who has perfected the ideal version of the dish. He meets a new woman, she falls in love with his child. They get married. They run a world-renowned ramen restaurant together.
When I get a call from home with bad news, when my sister flounders in and out of rehab, or one of my little brothers ODs and I can’t make it home to sit by his hospital bed, my brain becomes foggy and I feel myself floundering as I reach for rational thought.
Eggs at room temperature separate more easily, and whisking the yolks with sugar over a slow heat in a double boiler will bring the solution together and bind it fast.
If you add melted butter, the mixture will be the smoothest of smooth.
Baking is chemistry, affected by and in tune with the environment around it. If the altitude changes, so does your baking temperature and time. If there’s a summer rainstorm that day, your dough will rise differently than on a dry, cold winter morning when your hair is cracking with pre-snowstorm static. You adjust and react to the elements until the chemical balance is just right, working on the same frequency as the world around it, like you intended.
After Kyrgyzstan, I visit Zoey and her partner in their little blue house, set up on a hill in an orchard. The backyard will grow to be a tangle of tomato vines and squash plants, rambling over the edges of their planter boxes. She comes home from work early and I’m in the living room on a conference call with my boss. She takes out a series of colorful vegetables and rice. She pours wine in a glass and tops it off with seltzer water, a squeeze of lemon, a sprig of basil. It tastes like sunshine. We chop vegetables in her bright kitchen, and this time we have the knives we are used to. The stove works reliably. We have water running in the sink — no one has to walk to the well for a new bucketful. She touches my waist this time, like before, but she doesn’t kiss my neck. Outside, her partner is heating up the grill, smoking a joint. He looks at the hills surrounding this Oregon valley, the clouds settling in over the mountains as the sun starts to set. The wind picks up.
“Do you know why the wind picks up right at sunset?” Zoey asks a few minutes later, when he joins us in the kitchen, as I sit on the countertop and her partner leans his hips against the counter next to me. We’re watching her dust the vegetables with salt, pepper, and then sprinkle them with oil. This year she is working at an organization where she teaches kids facts about science through movement, through drama. She is brimming with science facts these days, and sometimes he and I like to provoke them intentionally, making a game where we try to see how many of these facts she can rattle off before she runs out, before we distract her, before she starts laughing. Now, we let her explain: “The sun setting cools the air, and cools the surface of the earth, and everything shifts for a few minutes before it settles into cool stillness for the night.” She’s right — and when we eat our grilled vegetables on the picnic table outside, the air has cooled off and become still. There is no wind.
When I say goodbye the next day, I don’t kiss her. She and I are quiet. There are no words for this.
“What is it?” Aliza always asked me, when she’d come home from school and find me there, elbows-deep in flour in the kitchen, my eyes freshly-dried from the tears she pretended not to notice.
I’d say, it’s my grandmother’s favorite cake, the one we make for her birthday every year, and tomorrow is her birthday. It’s my mother’s scone recipe, it’s like small sweet cakes. This is cornbread for me to take to Talas City tonight; it’s a volunteer’s birthday and she misses her mom making this for her. These are snickerdoodle cookies, my brother’s secret recipe. He called me last night.
I would not say: I remembered the way my skin felt one night in Zoey’s arms, and I have to touch other things to distract myself from the crackle running up and down my spine. Never: I missed my parents and I cannot talk to them the same way anymore, but I still miss when I believed were all safe together, and when I believed that, I used to eat food just like this. We made this spice cake together, just like this.