Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

I Overcame My Hatred of Cooking

A vlog and a pie provided therapy.

I wiped the butter off the laptop and then reveled in the aroma of cinnamon that filled my astonished kitchen.

Hubby burst through the door. “Something smells delicious in here.”

Grinning, I could hardly get the words out. “Baked you a present, honey.”

An apple pie cooled on the counter, in direct rebuttal to the fact I hated cooking and wasn’t even that crazy about eating.

Ben clapped his hand to his chest. “Wowser, sweetheart. It’s beautiful.”

It was.

A golden volcano with juice seeping through its fissures and steam escaping its peak. The dish exceeded my culinary skills. I’d attempted it partly because Ben had mentioned he loved homemade apple pie, but mostly because he didn’t expect it. He had cheered every uninspired meal I’d set in front of him. His patience had engendered both my gratitude and bravery.

“You did this for me?” he asked.

The question hung in the air. I savored it.

There was nothing to savor about the food I’d grown up with. My father caught catfish in the days when sophisticated palates scorned it as a bottom feeder. He hunted squirrel, coon, duck, and beaver, accompanied by hounds that were breadwinners, rather than pets. Mama baked the coon with barbecue sauce — a failed attempt to disguise its bitter taste. Potatoes and carrots swam around it in a puddle of grease.

In the summer, she picked dandelion greens out of our yard and rutabagas that grew back by the alley. As I picked alongside her, Des Moines’ hard-packed clay soil dug into my knees, while mosquitoes tormented a spot above my elbow. I knelt for hours; it seemed a mountain of raw greens cooked down to only a slimy spoonful. Sometimes corn-on-the-cob appeared in our kitchen, sacks full of it. Sweet corn tasted like a reward, but shucking it was punishment, especially for me, squeamish about the worms that lurked beneath the silk.

About once a year, Mama baked fudge. Blocks heavy as bricks sat in the icebox wrapped in waxed paper. She doled out tiny chunks to us kids. It was hard and cold against my front teeth when I bit into a slice. With six in the family, every one nursing a voracious sweet tooth, the fudge disappeared after a day or two. Dad claimed the bulk of it.

When Mama fixed another of Dad’s favored treats, he didn’t have to share. Nobody else liked chitlins — pig intestines, which she washed in the kitchen sink, then boiled all day long. Their stench dug claws into my throat and lungs. The house stunk for weeks.

Toiling over stove and sink, Mama was borne around the kitchen on a tide of hardscrabble routine, which crowded out any notion of teaching her little girl how to cook. I perched on a step stool in the corner, absent any desire to learn. In those days, want — whether the object was Mama’s attention, a new doll, or an extra piece of fudge — got you nowhere.

Dad and Mama divorced the year I turned twelve. He married Kim Carol, who preferred poetry and metaphysics to the culinary arts. Concerned about my lethargy, she took me to a doctor, who diagnosed low blood sugar. The doctor explained my new relationship with food — eat every three hours every day — as though he were prescribing antibiotics. Mother Kim found no joy in cooking and didn’t help search for recipes that would benefit my health. By the time she entered my life, I had already absorbed subliminal messages from Mama that only the wife fixed the family meals. When Mother Kim relegated me to salad making, my kitchen education stagnated at rinsing lettuce and washing dishes.

Meanwhile, she struggled to maintain the Elizabeth Taylor figure of her twenties. Sweets were banned. Tab replaced Kool-Aid. When I was in college, she warned if my thighs developed saddlebags, I’d never get rid of them, and so cajoled me to join her in fad diets. Her mantra: “We’ll lose five pounds this weekend.”

During the years spent with Mama, meal preparation was synonymous with forced labor. Mother Kim did nothing to dissuade me of that view, and in fact, after she came into my life, food became a bitter pill.

I found the apple pie recipe online, at Food Wishes: Video Recipes with Chef John. His initial instruction, “peel and core the apples,” tightened my mouth into a grimace. The words fell through a hole in my chest, a space where other women stored cooking lessons learned from mom.

Surely Chef John would glare out from the computer screen, the way Mother Kim had during my first visit home as a married woman. When I’d hesitated at the stove, her impatience had wilted me: “You can’t even make gravy? How in the world do you feed your husband?”

Here’s how. I laid out The Joy of Cooking, a dictionary, and three tablets on my kitchen table. I flipped the cookbook open to the beef chapter, read through a recipe until an unfamiliar word, like braise, popped up. Looked up braise in the dictionary. If it sounded do-able, I returned to the recipe, copied all the ingredients, including measurements, onto a grocery list — tablet number one. When the recipe required an unusual utensil, like a roasting pan, I listed that on tablet number two (after looking it up in the dictionary). Next, a perusal of the chicken chapter, followed by fish, casseroles, and vegetables. On tablet number three, the days of the week. Beside each day, a menu. At the grocery store, I studied labels to determine which size of block cheese would produce half a cup shredded. Gadgets required a stop at Target on the way home. And what distinguished a spatula from a pancake turner? I repeated the process every week, because my cupboards held none of the essentials. Staples? They fastened papers together.

I pushed play on Chef John’s video. The camera focused on his hands, a knife in one, an apple in the other. He cut off the ends, and then peeled around. “I don’t have any tricks for that. Just use a paring knife. You can use a peeler.” He cut the fruit in quarters and then sliced off the cores. “I’m not a big corer. I don’t have one of those things you push through. Actually I think I do have one, but it’s rusty.”

What did he say? I pushed rewind. “… use a paring knife … ” and then “…one of those things you push through.” Chef John dismissed gadgets as optional. I wanted to kiss him.

I studied the comments below the typed recipe. Question: Won’t the bottom crust be soggy? Chef responded, “I’ve never really thought about it.” Question: Forgot to dot the apples with butter. Will it be okay? Chef responded, “Should be okay.” Question: What about store-bought crusts? Response, “Just fine.” How do you get the first piece of pie out? “It might fall apart. That’s normal.”

I practically memorized the recipe, comments, and video — determined to root out deception. Desperate to identify any turn of a phrase that, misunderstood, would lead to humiliation. My faith grew. Let Chef John hold my hand; I would end up with pie.

“Bye, honey. See you tonight.” After Ben left the house for the day, I set up my laptop on the kitchen counter. The tinkle of Oscar Peterson’s mellow jazz piano floated from our CD player. Apple peel ribbons dropped into the sink. Knife clacked against cutting board. “Ow.” I knocked my forehead against an open cabinet door, rubbed the sore spot with a sticky hand. That’s okay, keep going. The counter turned white from spilled cornstarch and sugar. I stirred — damn, is it too wet? Rewound the video. “… going to be really juicy,” Chef John said. An errant peel squished underfoot. I poured the goopy mixture into a crust-lined pie plate, popping a slice into my mouth. Crunchy and sweet. For heaven’s sake — delicious. But too many apples, the top crust will never fit. Checked the video again. My concoction matched the freeze frame of Chef John’s unbaked pie. The top crust broke when I eased it on. No problem. Pinch it together. I painted the whole thing with beaten egg, in careless swipes just like Chef. Hot air hit my face when I opened the oven door to slide the pie inside.

I had just Windexed the laptop screen and was blowing sugar from the keyboard when our motorized garage door announced Ben’s arrival.

He burst into the kitchen. “Something smells delicious in here.”

Snapping the computer shut, I pointed to the pie. “Made you a present, honey.”

“Wowser, sweetheart. It’s beautiful. Apple?” His forward momentum halted, but his gaze remained fixed on the treat, as though I might snatch it away if he blinked. “You did this for me?”

The first piece out of the pan fell apart. That was normal.

I presented him a saucer heaped with apples, juice, and crust. After scooping up a forkful he closed his eyes to emphasize the mmmm.

“Yes, for you,” I said. “For both of us.”

Dawn Downey writes about love and pain. Her latest book is Blindsided: Essays from the Only Black Woman in the Room.

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