Relationships

What We Cook Is Who We Are

My cookbook is five tattered manila folders filled with stained clippings and splattered scraps of handwriting

I knew I was falling in love when I broke an egg into my coffee while trying to make a man an omelet. I stared at the submerged yolk poaching in my java and thought: Girl, you are gone. Just then the butter began to burn and the smoke alarm said, This place is on fire.

Almost every day, I scald myself or cut myself or find avocado in my hair because I cook with my whole body and sometimes drink too much wine in the process. My cookbook is five tattered manila folders filled with stained clippings and splattered scraps of handwriting. A history of pans of hot oil and blenders full of ice, written in spilled salt, drizzled honey and crushed tomatoes.

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My mother was a golfer, not a cook. She made London broil with Adolph’s meat tenderizer and pot roast sauced in ketchup and Lipton’s onion soup. Of course I became a vegetarian. At 12, I developed a disgusting recipe that involved frying up every vegetable we had in the house — celery, carrots and onions — then adding curry powder, raisins and tomato sauce. I ate it proudly every day.

My first pregnancy was an unexplained full-term stillbirth. Afterward, I lay in the dark, thinking I would never get up again until a woman I barely knew brought a Styrofoam box of food I could not recognize. It was yellow, dark green, tan and orange. It could have been a blue plate special from the planet Venus. She sat there staring at me until I ate it. And I felt a surge of unexpected strength and well-being. I was not macrobiotic for very long, but formed a relationship with brown rice, miso and collards that lasts to this day.

After Tony died of AIDS when our sons were four and six, there was a period when soaking aduki beans was too much trouble. I barely had the time or will to open a box of Jello, much less make fruit-juice kanten. Though my boys had been raised on lentil burgers and organic chicken nuggets, they seemed more than happy with our new friends, Hamburger Helper and ramen. I added tofu to the soup for old time’s sake.

For five years, I dated a man who was both an excellent chef and a restaurant critic, which led to a fattening, cooking-free lifestyle. One night early on, I made him a big zuppa di clams according to my mother’s friend Lois Altschul’s recipe, found on a yellow index card in my seafood folder. I dropped the platter on the floor on the way to the table. In retrospect, it was a sign.

After the big guy and I broke up, I met a skinny philosopher who ate mostly trail mix. I married him and moved to rural Central Pennsylvania. I had a hard time getting used to my new environment, a meat and potatoes kind of place with restaurant choices ranging from Wendy’s to Arby’s and grocery stores ranging from Walmart to Shur-Fine. This situation, combined with my lack of friends and activities, led to an intense phase of renewal in my cooking. I had all the time in the world to learn to bake bread, can tomatoes and make pies from scratch with apples from the orchard down the road or raspberries the kids brought in from the backyard. If I wanted Mexican or Thai or even decent Jewish rye, I had to make it myself.

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In Baltimore, I shop for groceries constantly. I have five lists going at once: Giant, Trader Joe’s, Trinacria, Asia Foods and Wells Liquors, and I usually have to stop at Eddie’s anyway for one last thing when I pick up Jane from school. Just a bunch of parsley or a tin of cashews. Plus a nice pack of Berger cookies for the girl. No matter how much money I take to the Waverly farmers’ market, I spend it all. I visit Whole Foods only on my birthday. Strangers on the Internet teach me their tomatillo salsa, rosewater crème brûlée, Hangtown fry and coconut curry mussels — I try not to spill shiraz on my laptop. From my old folders, I make pasta with fresh tuna and oil-cured olives, buttery pilaf with vermicelli, Moroccan harira soup from an ’80s-era "Cooking Light." My younger son graduated from college in New Orleans with a degree in jambalaya and crawfish. The kid fries eggs like a genius.

When I miss my mother, I make her London broil. These days, we eat it over spring greens with mint and cilantro and a dressing made from fish sauce and limes, but the secret of its tenderness has not changed.

Marion Winik is the author of "Highs in the Low Fifties" and "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead." Excerpted from “Guesswork,” an original collection of essays for Shebooks, the new publisher of short e-books by and for women.

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