“If I leave the ingredients and a twenty on your porch, can you make dinner for my family?”
“Well, sure!” I responded, glad to see my friend’s relieved look. He was the oldest of four boys, whose wise mother required her sons to cook each weeknight. My friend, all the wiser, decided to outsource his chore to me. I was happy to oblige.
The first quarter of my life is filled to the brim with positive culinary memories. From a young age, I remember my grandmother’s instruction in the art of quantities. My cousin allowed us to destroy her kitchen each winter with Christmas cookies and enough sprinkles to clog the vacuum. When my mother offered it up, grocery shopping was the chore I begged to complete. Upon reflection, I don’t think it was only so I could buy candy at checkout.
Throughout college, meals would bind our friend group together, even if the outside realm pulled our attention elsewhere. My roommates kept Sunday night dinners sacred, each taking one weekend every month. Around our tattered table, we shared it all, regardless of the food’s quality. We experimented with new recipes, honored family traditions, and grew into the next phase of our lives.
As newlyweds, I recall our tiny kitchen nook, just big enough for the two of us, plus a rather rude golden retriever. We searched for recipes together, treating a meal plan almost as a symbol of how we would weave our previously separate lives together.
No matter the occasion, or the level of difficulty, I can’t remember a negative experience in the kitchen. Baking brought joy to those around me, reinforced our community, and sent plenty of compliments my way.
The next quarter of my life looked just a little bit different.
The kitchen, formerly a place of refuge and restoration, became a battlefield. Instead of lovingly preparing meals, I now held a cranky baby at all hours of the day. Even if there was physical space in the few moments I could put her down, my mental energy was beyond depleted.
Meals became haphazard when my first child began eating solids. She was willing to eat so little, with no regularity or consistency. I saw two options: I could try to give her new foods and spend the rest of my day cleaning up the floor, or I could give her rice puffs and claim victory. Her pickiness was coupled with attempts at postpartum weight loss, and I watched my exhaustion progress to ambivalence.
As disorder ensued through our second and third deliveries, the kitchen morphed towards chaos. I guess cooking just isn’t my strength anymore. I’m so tired, and I just don’t have the energy or the ability to put any thought into feeding my family.
That didn’t stop me from envying those who did. With the uptick of social media in those isolating baby years, I got an eyeful of the amazing dishes my friends seemed to create with regularity. Oscillating between jealousy and pity, I settled into complacency with far too much ease.
Complacency continued in the years to follow, as we brought home our fourth and final daughter. At the same time, we learned to balance meals around a myriad of big kid activities. It seemed much simpler to create some version of an a la cart buffet along our kitchen counter than to try to produce meals that would please this growing crowd. While we still enjoyed dinner together, there was no resemblance of a family-style, dish-sharing utopia that had been my dream.
The week prior to Thanksgiving, a few years back, the evaluating speech therapist looked up at me, slightly aghast, when I told her that our youngest tended to choke with most meals. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t at least make a mental note of this concern sooner. I viewed each meal as a fight, where our only job was to arrive at the other side in one piece. There was little space for additional information.
“That’s not normal, you know.”
Add it to the list, I mentally replied, a sheepish smile hiding feelings of despair. We earned this Early Intervention evaluation after my daughter’s eighteen-month check-up, and the results led us down a path we still traverse today.
In the fluoroscopy suite, I packed her favorite snacks: small pieces of rice puffs, a thinly sliced apple, and a tiny wedge of cheese. The terror in her eyes immediately informed me that she did not care what I brought; instead, she wanted her mother to get rid of all these scary people wearing lead and operating big machines. Silent tears turned into loud wails, but not before the radiologist captured two congenital defects that needed repair.
Years of intensive therapy followed two surgeries to repair her differences, strengthen our daughter’s muscles, and teach her to swallow safely. As she grew, so did her audacity. She reached for sharper, tougher foods that would cause her to choke. Only one of our three skilled speech therapists could reason with our daughter and show her how to take ownership of her safety.
We reached a point where the lines were drawn. I was determined not to spend our lives in fear of food, nor would I want to pass this trepidation on to any of my daughters. As a family, we made a plan that altered our previous habits, but worked to keep us all safe and thriving. As we packed the masks and snacks for preschool this year, I tucked in the multi-page document that outlined safe eating.
Always at a loss for gifts, I asked my family if they would give me cooking classes for Christmas. They were happy to oblige, and I selected evenings out with local masters to conquer even the most challenging dishes.
As we can all attest, 2020 did not turn out like we thought. I was feeling exceptionally frustrated one night last year, close to the date I was supposed to be at a local vineyard, perfecting a hollandaise sauce and raising a glass with close friends. Instead, I was tired, cranky, and sitting in athletic wear for the sixtieth day in a row. And I still didn’t love cooking as I once had, which, in the moment, was the most disappointing part of all.
I gazed across my kitchen, and a beautiful site caught my eye. My oldest and youngest daughters, separated by six years, were baking together. I watched the graceful, patient moves of my oldest daughter as she showed her sister how to measure ingredients.
“Sissy, that’s not safe for your swallow. Let’s pick something different.” Without missing a beat, the duo selected a benign choice, adding it to the bowl with a sense of accomplishment. I watched in awe as my oldest child mimicked the behavior I modeled for years; scanning the environment, she could anticipate her sister’s needs, compensate for impulsive desires, and lovingly guide her toward a safe relationship with food.
I had dreams that I would open a new chapter of my culinary life last year. My imagination took me to farm tables, surrounded by family and friends, heaping adoration on my reclaimed skills. We would stay warm within the hallowed embrace of those we hold dear, and I would rest in the confidence knowing that my hard work resulted in safe outcomes for my youngest lady.
The further we retreat into the pandemic, the more obvious it becomes that my chapter will not be written in the near future. Instead of perpetual disappointment, I’m encouraged by the vision of my firstborn, skillfully and passionately learning her own craft. Surrounded by silicone baking dishes, with flour haphazard across the countertops, she radiates joy, recounting the neighbors she plans to bless with today’s creation.
Beyond witnessing the development of her passion, the greatest joy in what might be an otherwise rotten circumstance is that I have found a partner. Not only a partner in the kitchen, but another set of watchful eyes to keep her smallest sister safe. This partner radiates enthusiasm that I can’t help but adopt.
The guidance wasn’t reserved for the kitchen alone. I made a point to notice my children, and their interactions with each other, as the weeks we spent quarantined together turned into months. My daughters, without my direct orchestration, formed their own team. They had a rhythm, which symbiotically allowed each to contribute to the well being of their siblings. Their rhythm was a beautiful reminder that I wasn’t alone in my quest to keep them safe and thriving.
This chapter might not have looked like we planned, but the best things rarely do. What I thought would be the beginning of a new culinary chapter for me became the first chapter for my oldest daughter. We gained so much more this way.