Growing up, I was spoiled by the delicious meals made by my Polish mother. The kitchen was her kingdom. She chopped, boiled, seasoned with a light hand and astounding precision, bringing to the table dishes that were simple, healthy, and tasty.
I was uninterested in cooking for a long time. To me, it seemed like drudgery equal to having to unload the dishwasher or put my younger twin sisters to bed. Sure, I had fun baking every once in a while – especially when I could find myself some literary-themed cookbook and make Ann of Green Gables’ scones, and especially when guests came over and bestowed the requisite praise on my concoctions. At that time, I liked the rigidity of baking, of mixing ingredients, putting them in the oven, and opening it an hour later to see something completely transformed. I think I even wrote a story once comparing baking to creating the world (always given to flights of fancy, check).
But cooking took a while to get a hold of me. My teen years were spent living with my grandparents, and the kitchen was my grandmother’s fortress. I could only enter at regular times for my meals and lovely snacks that she prepared in a valiant albeit ultimately unsuccessful attempt to ’round me out’ and help me put on some weight. I didn’t fight her for possession of the stove and oven either – I was content in my role as dishwasher and master table wiper.
Student years rolled around, and my cousin and I lived for over 4 years in a half-basement where the kitchen sink shared a faucet with the bathtub (it was convenient – you could twist it right or left depending on whether you were washing dishes or showering). The hot plate with two burners, a mini fridge, and an electrical kettle were enough for hot dogs in tomato sauce (with bread) or occasional fried eggs (with bread). We prided ourselves on an exuberant collection of teas, and cold salads were our expertise for the parties and get-togethers that we held (and wild ones they were, what with our tea collection and all).
My semester in France didn’t really whet my cooking skills either. There was one kitchen on the floor of my dorm – but it was dirty and somehow creepy so I didn’t use it more than once or twice. No, that semester was the time of 3 euro, 3-course, often 3-hour meals at the Resto U (university cafeteria), where the blessings of French government subventions made everything affordable and almost everything tasty. I did cook – sometimes – in my friends’ dorms, where I learned that garlic and onion have different frying rates and hastily tried to pick out the garlic from the onion that I had been instructed to chop.
I dabbled in cooking when I moved to France permanently. But even then, it wasn’t really born of a need. With the French government again helping reduce the cost of my workplace meals, a substantial, home-cooked dinner was a rare occurrence, usually only after a visit to the swimming pool, when I would make my favorite concoction of pasta, two melty cheeses, cream, butter and garlic (yes, I enjoyed dairy at that time. Who wouldn’t?? I was in France, after all). With delicious, hearty and (mostly) healthy food outside of my doorstep, there was no need for me to bother. Even the farmers market was a trap – I’d venture out to buy some veggie or fruits and get seduced by millions of smelly cheeses, sausages with walnuts in them, or the amazing sausage cheese layered dish of deliciousness whose name I can’t remember but whose flavor I will never forget.
Moving back to the US made all the difference. The first few months in NYC were a barrage of crowded dark supermarkets in the Bronx, expensive prepared foods and restaurants where fried chicken was cheap and greasy. My emotional situation at the time did not stimulate my appetite very much, but I soon came to realize that if I wished to eat well – and be healthy – I’d have to take matters into my own hands.
The truth is, once I discovered the magic of bringing seemingly incongruous ingredients together to create an unforgettable flavor, the joy of adding a little of this spice or more of that one, and the inexplicable satisfaction of serving someone a dish that is healthy, homemade and delicious, there was no going back.
I had discovered what the women in my family – and around me – had known all along.
“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate” says Alan Wolfelt.
And now if you’ll forgive me, I have a giant pot of sweet potato, chickpea and okra gumbo calling to me from my stovetop, and my husband will be back home soon.