Finding small victories when cooking feels out of reach

Illustration for article titled Finding small victories when cooking feels out of reach
Image: Karl Gustafson

My partner has made four loaves of banana bread since New York City first received shelter-in-place orders. He’s never attempted to bake before, but between the impulse-purchased bananas that were going brown on our counter and the constant banana bread photos and recipes all over social media, he decided to give it a try. They were great. In fact, while we’ve been home, he’s discovered a newfound love of baking. Cooking—particularly the way Haitian folks tend to do it, with its “little bit of this and a dash of that”—has always felt like a maze for a guy who stans formulas, but baking is different. During quarantine, it has allowed him space to build a casual and fulfilling relationship with the kitchen. I haven’t been so lucky.

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When first confronted with the reality of staying home and social distancing in the middle of the city, I made a mental list of all of the things I would finally be able to get done. Cooking more was firmly on that list. I had spent the first three months of 2020 either eating out while traveling for work or meal prepping food on Sunday that I would be sick of eating by Wednesday. I told myself that if only I had more time, I would cook dinner every day and try out new recipes. There was a reason I was so motivated: I wanted to cook the meals from my mom’s notebook.

In the late ’70s, my mom was a stagiaire at the L’ecole Professionnelle in her hometown in Haiti. She kept a notebook from school filled with notes and recipes from instruction in cooking and baking. The notebook, which is nearly 15 years my senior, is still in good shape despite the yellowing pages. It’s filled with my mother’s careful cursive, a far cry from my own hurried scrawl, but color coded like my notes from law school. The notebook is a familial artifact, one that was kept safe during the rise and fall of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc), a marriage, two children, and a move to a country where her accent and attempt to gain fluency in a third language marked her as someone whose voice could be ignored. When I begged my mother to send me the notebook over a year ago, my plan was to photograph and digitize the book while cooking my way through the French and traditional Haitian recipes that adorned the pages.

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My own history with cooking has been complicated. I spent a good chunk of my childhood being told to go to the kitchen to watch and help out, leading to an almost inevitable rejection of it, like a failed organ. Back then, in my attempts to push back against the societal expectation that women belong in the kitchen, I didn’t realize that the language I used to object was also rejecting my mother, and all of the other femmes in my family who shared their stories, and our heritage at the counters and the stove.

The thing about growth is that it’s as painful as it is necessary. In college, growing homesick for my favorite foods—and with no way to tap into those memories except to prepare it for myself—I got the chance to develop a relationship with cooking that was a celebration of the women that I loved: the ones who loved through recipes passed on at the knees of elders, through bowls of soup, and through plates left for you in the microwave for when you get home.

I intended to spend quarantine digging for that same celebratory feeling of cooking, of discovering new flavors and being surrounded by familiar ones. But my grocery shopping trips quickly became a mission to get what I needed as fast as possible, minimizing the time spent inside with strangers. My freezer, for the first time in years, is now filled with frozen meals and vegetables. My time in the kitchen cooking anything from scratch has been sporadic at best, and it was getting hard to find the celebration in any of it. Before sheltering in place, I made exactly one recipe from my mother’s notebook, a Haitian Pain Patâte (a sweet potato bread made with boniato). The flavors were there, but it still needs work. Considering that my mom’s recipes sometimes forgo precise measurements for pinches and dashes, this was inevitable. Baking will probably always be more of a labor of love to me, not quite the natural fit that it seems to be with my partner.

Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve been learning to forgive myself. After all, I am not on vacation. There’s a pandemic outside, and I’m a Black woman constantly confronted by the realities of a society that undervalues my whole self. Despite the genuine desire to create a big win by cooking through my mother’s prized notebook, I’ve been grabbing my cooking wins wherever I can find them. Sometimes that win is grabbing a package of frozen food, ignoring the cooking directions, and seasoning it to my taste. Or grabbing the ends of my partner’s meticulously baked banana bread to make a quick bread pudding. Right now, I am giving myself permission to be satisfied with double-tapping my friends’ baking and cooking successes on Instagram, and congratulating myself for surviving, until the kitchen feels right again.

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DISCUSSION

calzonegolem
CalzoneGolem

Anyone with “quarantine plans” to do or learn whatever please don’t feel frustrated about not doing or learning whatever. Shit’s raw out there and if you’re not in the right head space for it you won’t be able to pick up new skills. This whole deal is not really conducive to it.

That being said ... American is not out of the woods yet and there’ll be plenty more quarantine to be had. Keep your head up try something new if you can.