The smell of onions, garlic, and cumin cling to the edges of memories of my childhood, a kitchen hazy with flavor and the upright, focused figure of my father recreating his mother’s recipes for me. Somewhere, my mother is laughing at him for not letting her near the kitchen; she’s a consummate baker, but cooking is beyond her (she has even managed to burn white rice). When I’m too young to use a gas stove or a large knife, my father lets me help by smashing plantains for tostones and squashing the seasoned meat for fritas. When I’m old enough to handle dangerous objects, my father hovers behind me and constantly turns down the flame, or reminds me to not cut towards myself, muchacha, no te quiero llevar al hospital.
To be fair, I’m over thirty and when I see him, he still hovers.
The first thing he taught me was sofrito, the basis of a huge number of Latin American dishes, including the Cuban and Puerto Rican foods I learned at his elbow: beans, stews, rice-based entrees, and meats like ropa vieja. You can find versions of sofrito across the Mediterranean and in the Philippines where it’s called ginisá. The variations are endless, even within a single country, because it reflects native foods, the people who live there and, in many cases, the people who were colonized.
As an undergraduate student, I would recreate my father’s Cuban sofrito to add to my own dishes. Onion, green bell pepper, garlic, olive oil, cumin, tomato paste, bay leaves, oregano, and white wine (by the way, it’s an offense against good cooking that you can’t get wine under age 21 on the mainland), assembled in large batches to store in a jar and use at will. It sounds simple, but there are untold nuances involved.
Consider the onion. It’s best to dice it into small pieces so that it cooks evenly to a translucent sheen. I learned a haphazard method of dicing from my father, who never really sat me down to explain what direction I needed to cut it. As a broke college kid, I spent eons on YouTube looking up “how to dice an onion evenly I failed at cutting in a straight line in kindergarten please help me.” I learned how to properly dice an onion at 19, how to julienne at 21, and how to mince without taking off the edge of my fingernail at 23. Whoever tells you cooking is easy is lying.
In grad school, I started seeing double when I went to the opera or the symphony, or when I tried to read road signs at a distance. Then, when I was 28, I suffered what’s called a corneal epithelium erosion and corneal abrasion. I woke up one morning feeling like someone was stabbing my left eye with thousands of needles. I cried on the phone to my doctor, I cried in the office, and I cried into my boyfriend’s shirt when he arrived in the emergency room at the hospital. I couldn’t see because it hurt, brutally, to open my eyes. No one knew what was wrong other than well, something’s wrong, your eye is totally red.
A cornea specialist figured out that the skin tissue protecting the cornea had peeled away and then just sat there, bunched up at the bottom of my eyeball, scratching away at it. A whole third of my eyeball had been abraded; technicians at the clinic saw the drawing where he circled the injured area and in something like shock would say, “I have never seen that before.” You do not want to be that person.
For several days, I could not see because my eyeball had to regrow the skin. Others cooked for me, or brought me takeout, or cut my meat for me. I spent way too long figuring out how to get spoons and forks into my mouth and not on my cheek.
Eventually, the right eye suffered the same fate. Even after the epithelium grew back, it would ache if I had them open for too long. My work output got cut in half. I had to have two surgeries, both during the pandemic, to correct the epithelium’s regrowth. And likely as a result of the injury and these surgeries, my double vision had only grown worse.
Have you ever tried to write on a computer when you’re seeing overlapped twin images, both with blurry edges? Have you ever considered picking up a chef’s knife and slicing into an onion like this? Or a tiny clove of garlic? I had spent decades learning the value of fresh ingredients for sofrito, countless hours in supermarkets across time learning how to identify healthy onions and ripe bell peppers, and I’d even tested different varieties of garlic to find the best one when I moved away from your home. Now, not only could I not slice into them, but frying them came with its own hazards, because I might end up touching the hot pan by accident.
What happens when you’re disabled, and you need to eat, but you’re also broke because the economy has tanked and your degree doesn’t lend itself to finding work? What happens when you cannot make the food you grew up with because your body, your brain, and your emotions have conspired to make it both difficult and dangerous?
Luckily, you aren’t the only disabled person on the planet who wants to cook.
I quickly learned the value of springing an extra $1.50 for pre-chopped onions, or the whole $7 for a jar of minced garlic packed in olive oil that always lasts me much longer than I think it will. I fell in love with lemon and lime juice in bottles and tested small containers of each to find the ones that taste brightest and clearest. It’s been yet another grand food adventure, discovering what works for me and my taste buds and my disability and what doesn’t, experimenting with my favorite dishes. I developed senses I didn’t hone as much when I was abled, because I had been taught “this is what works” and “this is what tastes good” and never explored alternatives. By using disability-accommodating ingredients, I gained a sharper, deeper understanding of the distinctions between those ingredients: their shape, their taste, the many ways to prep them.
But sometimes, I read online about how people who cook with these “shortcut” ingredients aren’t actually good cooks. Their food is bad, the internet comments declare, and that’s just the way it is. These online voices also point out that using garlic and onions in pre-portioned containers is bad for the environment, said as if these products (and those who use them) are solely responsible for climate change. I might get angry about all this, except I’m already spending my energy on treating migraines, learning to use a screen reader, and wishing I could slice a garlic clove with my eyes shut.
The screen reader tells me in its dead monotone that using garlic paste from a tube will make my food taste “like plastic,” and if I can’t be bothered to use “real garlic”—despite the fact that I’m seeing two cloves on the cutting board and don’t know which one is the right one to slice into and which is the double vision illusion—I should just give up on good tasting food altogether.
Chopping bell pepper for sofrito becomes an art form: slice off the top with a small prayer, dig the core out with my fingers, wash the seeds away with some cold water, and dump it into the food processor. I turn on the machine grimly while the voices tell me that this “won’t chop the peppers into the right shape to cook evenly.” The last time I sliced them by hand, it took seven attempts.
At my lowest point, when I’ve eaten takeout five days in a row because I can’t work the microwave with my double vision, I finally tell my father that I can’t chop vegetables anymore. He agrees with me; it’s too dangerous to use a knife like this.
“But how am I supposed to cook?” I ask him.
“Ay, mija,” he says, a little sad as he always is these days because he’s too far away to help me. “Just buy a jar of garlic. Do you not remember that we had some? It works just fine.”
I didn’t remember, but now I do. It was a medium-sized glass jar with a blue lid, and he’d use it in the bases for stews on the days when he had no time to spend over a stove. He also liked to keep it on hand for my mother, who became infamous for cutting her fingers while cooking. He lists out conversion measurements for sofrito over the phone because he wants to be as helpful as he can, but he’s already done that by giving me the permission I didn’t know I needed.
Consider this your permission, too. Find the pre-chopped vegetables (frozen or fresh); the canned, jarred, diced alternatives; the tube-based pastes; the stuff your supermarket sells at an annoying uptick in price, if you can. It’s not worth the anguish and fear of cooking the way you’re told that a real cook is supposed to. The food, I can tell you from experience, will not taste like plastic or preservatives. It’ll taste like food, and maybe a little like victory.