With two working parents, dinnertime was always sacred. But, we never said grace. Instead, we thanked one another, and offered critique; my mother always thought my father’s dishes weren’t salty enough, my dad always thought she overcomplicated things. But when my parents fought, good food always seemed to be the one thing they agreed on.
My parents cooked with same ferocity as the contestants of Iron Chef. They’d throw spices and onions and garlic around, and they would yell, but it would be amusing. They were actors, sliding comfortably into the roles we found acceptable to convey the truth. The product was always the same: carefully orchestrated dinners with cheese plates, stews, and bottles of wine. Dinner party guests might trickle into the kitchen to watch the display, and later, they’d wonder how we’d managed it all. I would, too.
As I got older, we had less time for meals together. I began to savor the mornings when my father, a professor, woke up to make me breakfast. We’d sit in the kitchen, and he’d ask questions about school, my crushes. I’d indulge every emotion in that tiled room. How much I would miss that security later. He’d make a spicy masala omelet, thick with red onions, tomatoes and peppers, or a toad in a hole, with slices of the green chilis we got routinely got from Jackson Heights.
My mother, an artist, went to bed and woke up late, running on an opposite schedule. She missed those morning hours, and I know she’ll never forgive either of us for it.
During my senior year, their fighting could not be calmed by piping hot olive oil or stir fry curries. My parents started cooking alone. Soon, my mother stopped cooking altogether. I found other places to cook, like with my boyfriend, Felix. I’d return home hours into the night having eaten my fill. At home, I began to feel a numbness where I used to feel full, well nourished.
I cooked with Felix twice that subsequent summer, once while he stood awkwardly by, teaching me to smash garlic, insisting it was faster his way. He put the heel of the knife into each clove, pressing with sliding motion. Emptying the musky scent of the herb into the room. I refused to go along, stubborn as always. I cut the edges off of every buttercup bloom, dug my short nails into the thin pearly skin until the garlic was bare before me. I was raised a cook, my parents had taught me, and I was going to cook him meals of affection and joy in his kitchen.
He told me he loved me over every other meal. Though I played reciprocity game, I felt nothing. But I couldn’t bring myself to be honest with him about how I felt. Mostly, I needed him in my life so that I could be sure that I was lovable, since love was leaving my life with an ease that frightened me. When I went upstate to his parents’ house, he tried to cook, but could only manage Cup O’ Noodles with an added egg. For nutrients, he said. I tried to hide my dismay – all that sodium in my body. My eyes trained on the damp yellow stew he was making.
When I came to college, I left my family and boyfriend behind. My pre-orientation program involved staying on a farm for a week with strangers. At first, I was annoyed by some of the group, but because we spent nearly every hour of that week together, I grew to adore them. Still, I struggled to find feelings again underneath the summer sun. But where there was once numbness, I now began to feel placidity: the ache of the cooling August air as it cools after dusk.
Every day we sang in the bright crystalline green of our Connecticut farm, The Hickories, while we worked the fields. Sarah, our trip leader, taught me one song that I still sing, the last verse a high ring of delight, “We’ve got happy lives to live, we’ve got open arms to give, we’ve got hope down deep inside, because in love, we do reside.” Every time I dug my heels into the meaning. I wanted to believe it was possible for me.
On our last night, we geared up to all cook dinner. Irene, from Texas, made green beans with onions, and Alice put together the pasta. Caroline helped put out the dishes and plasticware. I helped Annalise make a promise of peach cobbler. We piled on thick vanilla ice cream and reveled in the sweetness after all those hours in the field. That evening the sky was steeped in a blue that eludes articulation. Under the umbrella of night, we promised we would all cook together again someday, to recall the simply enjoyment in a full meal crafted from creativity and the disappearing sunshine.
After that, I started living the life of a college student. I stayed close with Caroline, Irene, and Alice. That first year, I was overwhelmed by college life’s endless possibilities – all the people I could meet and love, things I could learn. But every phone call home stung, revived the numbness and exhaustion I remembered so vividly from high school.
My mother moved out of the house a few months into college, which was hard because I missed home, but also because the food at school wasn’t nearly as good. I missed cooking. I missed the good food, missed the tang and salt in every dish that my parents made, together. Dishes I knew that I would never savor in their company again. I tried to mend their wounds with food: I cooked carbonara for my father when he came back from his first round of divorce proceedings. I cooked mac and cheese with bacon and mushrooms for my mother’s first Thanksgiving alone.
As I thought of my future at college, I made a promise to myself: I would move off campus as soon as I could so that I could cook again, carve out that special time for myself. There’s something about cooking food that will be gone in a few hours, that can only be enjoyed by the people with you. Almost as though it were a secret.
The first week of February, I went to my friend Rosa’s house to make dinner. Normally, I plan what I cook; college students rarely cite culinary skills on their résumé. But Rosa insisted that we worked together for this meal. We were going to make risotto, she said.
I always found risotto daunting, something my mother stewed in a flat dark pan for hours while my father and I stood by, mesmerized. But according to Rosa, it was easy. You just had to be patient. I worked on the salad while she explained how to pour just the right amount of chicken stock into the rice. You had to pay attention to the rice, wait for the moment that it was waiting to be quenched. Here, she said, handing me the ladle, you can do it.
In the midst of this, the brussel sprouts weren’t cooking right. Maybe we should turn the heat up in the oven? I suggested. The sprouts came out crispy, the salad delicious, though we had made far too much food for the two of us. It was a feast. We drank wine and talked about things I can’t remember. What I do remember is standing by the upturned map in her dining room. We were talking about all the places we wanted to visit, all the people we wanted to be. When she asked to kiss me, I said yes.
She took me to her bedroom; she paused and told me I was beautiful. We guided one another to the sheets. That first evening, I was breathless, overwhelmed, I was… confused. I felt calmness and then sweeping emotions in her presence, emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. Every touch recalled the sacred moments in her kitchen, her tenderness interlinked with the smokiness of fried sage and oven-baked rosemary.
Later, I would wonder what worlds of labels I was welcoming into my life by feeling everything I do for her. I knew I was queer, had known this for some time, but after trying on every facet of love I had found this was the only one that felt right. In that bed, with that woman. In the moment, all that mattered was what I felt between us. When I left her house that evening, I smiled big and bright like I used to when I was younger. The past years had stricken this optimism of this out of me, but after that night with her, I felt it erupt to the surface once more. There is so much to know, I thought. So much to love.
In the weeks that followed, I went to her house, I kissed her during the daytime hours, we had breakfast one blissful morning. My affection for Rosa is one that I am afraid to pin down with language, and so I try to communicate the substance of our meals instead. That morning she made potatoes in the oven with sriracha and bits of avocado. I brought a leftover mushroom quiche from the local vegetarian restaurant. Breakfast: the meals I had shared with my father as I child, the calm hours in which I had told the truth.
A few weeks ago, at a party, my friend Irene and I were talking about all the things we would cook once we got off campus, all the ways we would live life once we had the tools to make things the way we wanted. I was so excited, expectant.
These days, I am trying to retrace all the feelings I lost when my heart was crowded with the pain of watching a family disintegrate before me. I told Irene that I always find myself missing breakfast – the stillness of the morning air in the Northeast when it is cold, only broached by the warmth of a cup of black coffee. Coffee, which Rosa made me one Sunday, still so surprised that I didn’t want to mix in milk and sugar.
I’ve found a tenderness in Rosa’s kitchen that I’m regaining as I heal from the understanding that my family won’t be the way it used to be, the knowledge that love has to be something I carve out for myself. I’m moving off campus next year, into a house with Caroline, Alice, and Irene, the girls from my pre-orientation program. I’ve been thinking about all the classic desi dishes my parents made together, recipes that can’t be found in books like the Joy of Cooking.
Now, it’s summer and I’ve spent a month on my own in London, doing research. I made curries and risottos on the stove top, dishes doused in the colors of my childhood, and then something else. There’s a new angle to my cooking these days, a dimension sewn together by the recipes my father grew up on, and the ones I have learned from all the people I have loved.
Over spring break, my aunt told me about a cookbook named Cook & See. The book, written by the South Indian woman S. Meenakshi Amal, is more than just the dishes one might procure from her instructions. It is a story about her, and the people she wanted to show affection to. Cooking is about lineage – but it is also about the current moment. Sharing these moments is a gesture to the future, and all the things that might be.
This essay knew it wasn’t going to work with Rosa before I did. I’m not with her anymore, but I am the person I was meant to be.
Still, her fingers danced above mine that first night alone in London, when I made stewed porcini risotto without resting my eyes on a recipe.🗺️
Edited by Carmen.