“They stood there, knowing each other well, and each of them on the whole willing to accept the satisfaction of knowing, as a compensation for the inconvenience — whatever it might be — of being known.”
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Many moons ago (really, about 8 or so months), I sat on the bed in the narrow confines of my college dorm room, terra cotta bowl of breakfast fixings nestled in the crevice between my legs and my birds of paradise comforter, and vowed that when I finally moved on from this space – finally claimed a space of my own – I would have a kitchen table.
A simple vow, but powerful in its own small way.
For most of my college career, I ate my meals either in the larger kitchen space of the residence hall where I lived, or – when I needed a moment of peace – I escaped to my room. It should be noted that I was lucky to have a room in which I could eat by myself, as my position as a Resident Advisor offered me the kind of solace that only comes from being able to shut your door to the outside world. This meant that I often ate my meals with a self-imposed, casual monasticism on my bed, often while scrolling through the world of food writing in which I had emotionally invested myself by the time I was a sophomore. Inevitably, though, as I became more deeply interested in the culture of food and the way in which it affirms our own identities, the amount of time I spent strewing crumbs across my bedspread began to gnaw at me.
I longed for the kitchen table I grew up with, for the floral tablecloth and the mismatched china and the rushed, half-garbled prayers before meals, for the conversation like connective tissue webbing itself among my siblings and my parents as we detailed our days to one another in sentences punctuated by fork scrapes. The imprecise manner in which napkins were flung and dishes passed from end to end; the lingering nibbles stolen directly from cooling cast-iron skillets or serving bowls as the meal wound down.
The kitchen table was in fact the only place where we were allowed to eat – meals in front of the television did not even merit a thought, and food in our rooms on days other than Christmas or Easter (when we were allowed to dive into milky chocolate Santas or rabbits at seven in the morning just to preserve my parents’ sanity) was strictly verboten. I surmise that this was largely an effort on my parents’ part to keep the house from turning into a haven for candy wrappers and cookie crumbs, and my parents placed a firmly non-negotiable premium on sitting together as a family to share a meal when we could. Though that seems on the surface rather like experiencing food in a straitjacket, I will argue instead that it served to make the kitchen table itself something of a hallowed ground. As such, food became something sacred and filling, and throughout the years in which I grappled with food as a necessary evil, checking off the potato chips I consumed in my diary each night, eating at the kitchen table made the consumption of food something not only permissible, but encouraged.
I am fuzzily aware that there have been studies done which suggest that eating meals with one’s family, actually taking the time – if it can be found – to share food with loved ones across a dinner table, can empower a child in a way little else can, merely because it grounds them to an identity that will carry them through the tumult of their teenage years. It empowers them with a kind of confidence to share their experiences, a confidence that later informs the work that they do in school, and – by extension – the work they will do once they leave it. Anchoring myself to my chair each evening in front of dishes my sister and I often helped my mother create was fundamental in granting me both an understanding of the world I came from, and an ability to articulate this world to others once I moved away. I learned to translate my fledgling experience of adulthood – how I experienced passion, heartache, friendship, struggle and ultimately love – through the language of food.
More often than not, I insisted that food I made to be shared with others be eaten at a table, one of the slightly off-kilter metal ones spread throughout the floor of the communal residence hall kitchen. Carrying plates and serving bowls to one of these little tables felt spiritual, and even if the food shared was a simple scrambled egg or two, there was a sanctity in the act of it. If the food I cooked for others functioned as an articulation of my feelings for them, then sharing that food over the expanse of a tabletop was an homage to the food itself, and to the roots traceable in each dish I made.
When Sam and I were in the process of moving in together, one of the few pieces of furniture I yearned for from his old apartment was the rounded wooden table which he had happened upon years ago at some long-forgotten thrift store back when Brooklyn was still budding. Luckily enough, his roommate graciously offered it up to us, and away it went, sturdy segments pinioned tightly to the walls of the moving van we had rented. We put it together the next evening, minutes before we surrendered ourselves to the jaws of a sleep deprivation-induced emotional break. It was good to have the table there for us the next morning, a stalwart symbol of the roots we were putting down in this new space.
Since we’ve moved, I have made a point to eat most of my meals at this table, regardless of whether or not I am eating with someone. This is not undertaken without a certain amount of resolve, as some nights when I am tucking into my dinner alone, I am tempted to fold myself under my covers and stay there for the rest of the evening. This seems counter-intuitive for someone who has just spent the last 900 words in ode to kitchen tables. My ascetic habits have been hard to kick, however, especially when the act of eating at a table will always feel religiously communal to me, the meals blessed as dishes pass hands.
After long days at work, days that leave me feeling particularly shattered (and there have been too many of these recently), gathering the mindfulness to recognize the food on my plate as anything but fuel feels almost riotously absurd. Who the hell cares, I think, if you eat these eggs and toast at the table or in bed? You have spent all day on the phone with people who don’t care about you. Why make the effort now?
The answer with which I have to forge onward is that actually – I must care. While my identity right now is shrouded in a sense of displacement, I have found that one of the things which might very well save me – which might carry me from this stage to the next – is if I plant myself at that kitchen table and I remind myself of the value of the meal I have created. Because in doing so, I remind myself of my own worth, of the past that has informed the work I do in the present, and the future that I find myself ceaselessly trying to shape.
Because if there is any place where I will be able to make meaning of this sacred and unrelenting new chapter, it will certainly be at the table, one dish at a time.
For a long time, this was a tenet to which I adhered stringently. Not that any man besides one had ever made me breakfast. He had been the only one who mattered. He had made me breakfast once, on a frosty November morning two years previous, a morning now smudged with the warmth of memory like a dust-flecked camera lens.
There was french toast. And bacon – the thick-cut kind, the kind into which you tear with an almost spiritual abandon. And there was coffee – lots and lots of coffee, with velvety milk from a cold glass jug.
I had fallen for him before even realizing the danger, before understanding how potently food can flavor emotion, how it can heighten the heat of the moment or fold you into a false sense of comfort. How your heart can race simply at the tilt of an elbow poised over a pot of water as you watch salt scatter into the liquid below.
How you will remember exactly what he made for you two years after the fact, and taste it in the back of your throat like you just swallowed a bite.
I blamed it on that single breakfast, of course, and would joke with my friends that were it not for that morning, I would have opened myself up to many more men during my time at school. There were others, of course, in the meantime. The boy who turned out to be just that, the swaggering egotist who led me across the Brooklyn Bridge only to relate the story of the love that got away, the former flame who reignited briefly for one moment in a bar on a December evening I have since often tried to forget. But they did not – they could not – measure up. In the meantime I came to realize that even more important than this man to me was the urgent feeling I recognized which told me I must not lose myself in this, that I must dig in my heels and fashion for myself an existence that made sense even while my romantic life, in such a form as it had taken, became more of a puzzle.
I refused to make room for that poisonous combination of loneliness and melancholy that can hollow you if you let it, can gnaw at you in that soul-space deep in the pit of your stomach until you seek something to fill it, something less than what you were hoping. I would be filled other ways, I decided.
And so I turned to my cooking, to the melodies filling the kitchen I have called home for the past two and a half years. To the thwack of a knife slicing on hard wood, the hiss of vegetables tossed with abandon into a saute pan, the laughter of friends who came over to share meals with me, bottles of wine in hand, the gurgle of the drain as it released at the end of the evening. I read the work of food writers with abandon, finding myself in the words of luminaries like MFK Fisher, who wrote that “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Through this, I came to recognize the deep-seated truth that I reveal more about myself through my cooking than anything else. I can publish volumes about myself here, and yet you will know me more through the way I craft simple grilled cheese sandwich, heavy with tart apples and sharp cheddar and caramelized onions, shared over a counter space with a crisp glass of white wine.
I cook for those for whom the well of feeling runs deep.
About a year ago, I found myself on the train with a woman who is my boss in multiple capacities but whom I consider to be a particularly close mentor of mine. She happened to ask me if there was anyone in my life, and I scoffed lightly. But I had lately been scrolling through a particular social network when I had found myself distracted by the profile of a friend who I had met nearly a year ago at school, a friend who worked with me at the theater on campus occasionally. He was a chef, and thus his life was utterly fascinating to me, an inverse and a parallel to my own. He pursued professionally a reality that I had only just adopted. He had turned up at work a week before for an event, told me he might be headed to California to do a trail at the French Laundry.
Each time he was at the theater, we spoke for chunks of time that seemed to pass in the space of a breath. But he was not mine to consider, at the time. I was in the throes of grappling with my own romantic life, and he with his. Life is infinitely more complicated than we bargain for.
And yet, I turned to Annie next to me and told her, “You know, there’s this guy. Sam. He works at Franny’s. He’s in a relationship but gawd, I really feel like if he were ever single, it would work between us.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, and with them the acknowledgment that I had spied a chink in the isolated crawlspace of pent-up emotion in which I had found myself buried. But I did not give them much thought, even as Annie nudged me playfully and told me, “Make it happen, Costa!” before hopping off the train at 125th Street.
When he messaged me over a year later about the prospect of grabbing drinks and catching up, I had almost forgotten that particular exchange.
At the end of this past summer I sat in the car with the man I had dated for three years in high school, who turned to me imploringly, knuckles wrapped tensely around the leather of the steering wheel, and asked why we couldn’t just go back and do it all over again. Reverse the time and space between us, the years of sporadic contact and casual hookups bookended by my refusal to allow him to press for anything more than that. I paused, fingers on the door handle, before telling him that we couldn’t make each other happy anymore. That the happiness I had come to know was of a much different sort than when we were together.
The truth was actually this: That we had just had dinner together, and the food was impeccable, but I had finished my meal feeling more empty than when we started. He had barely been able to keep his eyes from the TV screen projecting the baseball game above the bar. I had barely been able to keep my feet bolted to the floor.
The meal had meant nothing to me, had only widened rifts I had long seen forming.
I refuse to live a life where food is a source of disconnect. And with that I knew that I could not continue what I finally realized was nothing more than a charade.
Chaucer wrote in The Franklin’s Tale that,
“Love will not be constrain’d by mastery.
When mast’ry comes, the god of love anon
Beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free.”
For awhile, now, I have considered this quote as foundational to me as any words of Fisher’s, as any meal I’ve created. You simply cannot choose the ones for whom you fall. But you can try to make sense of what you are feeling, and for me, this is what food – however it is shared, through whatever means you choose – has allowed me to do. And so it feels impossibly natural to me that this next chapter has unfolded through a series of shared meals, those we have cooked together and those we have shared across the space of a small table in restaurants speckled throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, my ankle pressed against his, knees knocking just-so. There has been little pressure to put into words feelings that have instead revealed themselves through food.
In the span of time since we reconnected, life has only become more complicated. There are some days when I wake up and it feels as if I do not take a breath until my head is on the pillow that evening. He has become part of the fabric of that complication; he makes it a little less overwhelming in a way that I have tried to communicate to him but for which I do not have the words. How do you explain to someone how powerful it is to have them rewrite the history of the past two years with a happy ending? How do you convey to them that they do not fill a space for you, but have proven that they are someone for whom it has become worth making room?
You don’t. I can’t. And so I have turned to food once again, to meals shared on mornings when I bounce back from the gym bubbling with energy, or evenings when I arrive with two bottles of wine in hand, remarking, “I don’t know why I always find it necessary to buy two. Do we ever drink two when we make dinner?”
The very fact that we may have an established pattern thrills me to pieces.
He asked me the other day, on a morning when I found myself standing over a skillet of eggs just beginning to come together in a cloudlike scramble, why I insisted on making breakfast.
I have learned, in the span of time that has passed since that fated breakfast two years ago, that it was not, in fact, so much about the meal itself as it was about the man who stood with a spatula in hand, intentions unclear to me but which I fashioned for myself in the months that followed. That he cooked for me was an act laden with meaning, and it wouldn’t have mattered if it were breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Food enabled me to decipher this man, but he did not want to be deciphered. He was not mine to parse.
I cook for Sam because I can think of no clearer way to show him how I feel. It is my way of conveying that I can be unraveled through something as honest as an egg yolk whisked lightly with a little bit of milk and folded in with some cheese when the time is right. We are new enough that this all sounds remarkably trite, but I don’t expect it to feel any less truthful in the future. And Lord knows, I do not know where the future might take us, but if we can continue finding a bit of solid ground in the kitchen, we will probably do just fine.
But that morning, I faced him, head cocked slightly and told him simply, “Because I want to.”
For everyone looking to live out both literary and nautical fantasies before the summer is up, I highly recommend visiting the Floating Library exhibition, here until October 3rd at Pier 25. It’s being showcased on the most beautiful little historic boat called The Lilac.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Happy Friday, everyone.
For what it’s worth, I’m going to lay the blame on the bookcase in his room.
I was over his apartment for the first time, had only just dropped my bag and handed over the dessert items which only just barely managed to survive the ride on the G train (strawberries and heavy cream to top them with), when I saw it. It didn’t particularly catch my eye at first, as I was too distracted by the 1950s-era tiles in the kitchen and the haphazard, thrilling manner in which various utensils were cluttered on shelves near the window. I would very nearly have passed it over, if he had not breathlessly – we had just canvassed the four flights to his apartment at lightning speed – suggested a grand tour of the place.
The bookcase is one of those floor-to-ceiling numbers that spans the length of a wall and within which is contained more than simply books. Pull a volume out, thumb through the marginalia, and almost immediately the pursuits of a particular soul are revealed to you. These pursuits shift with time, and thus it was that Hemingway bumped up against Chaucer, and James Joyce shared space with Herman Melville. I ran my fingers over the gently-used spines, commenting on his choices, ribbing him and congratulating him as I tried to grapple with the implications of encountering so expansive a collection displayed so lovingly.
There is just something about a man who is well-read and who takes pride in this fact. There is just something about this man, too.
The most compelling reads, however, were on the bottom shelf. These were the cookbooks.
In the space of several moments, we found ourselves seated on the floor, a coffee-table volume splayed between us, musing about the recipe choices and the photography, the ingeniousness of Thomas Keller and the spirit of The French Laundry imbued in the span of three hundred pages. Shoulders pressed together, thighs touching, heads bent in the liquid afternoon sun spilling through the curtains in the kitchen, conversation filling the space between us like soap suds – bubbling up, glittering and delicate, each thought popping to make way for another to expand.
Later, I would tell him that one of the things I like most about him is that I can really talk to him.
The truth is this: The more I talk to him, the more I want to talk to him, and this is a feeling I have not had in quite some time. This feeling that the words will not be exhausted no matter how far we follow them, that there will always be something new to discover, some other volume to open, some other page to thumb.
And that’s worth a whole, whole lot.
I woke up this morning with last night on my mind and words pressed up against the tips of my fingers where they have been itching to be examined, turned over for several hours now.
Here they are, for you as much as for me.
I am not one to disregard the elegant dance that is flirtation; in fact, I fancy myself rather fond of it, the give-and-take of wit that is meant all at once to build a wall while cleverly alerting the other person as to the cracks in its foundation. To invite as much as to warn that these expertly crafted exchanges are in fact more than they seem, like fireflies hovering in the twilight air simply waiting for shadows to fall. Only when conditions are right will they blaze to life, flecks of gold against blue-tinged summer evenings, glittering with their own potential.
I have long been the girl who would much rather hide in the eaves of a sturdy flirtation, tangle myself in the cobwebs of words whose meanings I can decipher but with which I do not have to do much more if I do not want to. This has become something of a modus operandi for me; just in case the fall is too steep, I have made provisions for myself. I remain while the space just beyond a particular string of words, the space where potential squeaks and bubbles, seeps away like waves on a shoreline during low tide. I have always been stronger than the current, hidden as I am, motionless.
So last night, when I asked him – he will only be “him” right now and nothing more, as he is nothing more quite yet and perhaps will not be for some time – what happened, asked him to explain himself up until this point, I could feel the thick vines of flirtation release, heave themselves to the side with a great shifting wheeze that I assumed only I could hear.
But when he answered, fully and honestly, allowing truths to flit between us as we made our way through the lush humidity that marks Brooklyn in early September, I sensed that the shift had not been lost on him.
And my, I could have lit the entire night sky in that moment.