A Meal for All Seasons

When life got tough, I found solace in the kitchen.

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

Three months after graduating from college I moved to a cramped apartment on the west coast of Florida. Somewhat improbably, I had landed a job at a great newspaper, and I was thrown immediately into writing about the minutiae of local government. My floundering efforts to understand budgets, police procedures and the concerns of community activists, who scolded me for doing a terrible job covering their town, left me constantly on edge.

The only place I managed to find relief from that angst was in the kitchen, despite the fact that I had left home with no culinary skills to speak of. As a teenager, I had bucked my mother’s efforts to teach me how to cook. Instead, we spent a fair amount of time yelling at one another.

But then I found myself far from home, wobbling in my career and desperately wanting to succeed at single life. I found a recipe for pastitsio, which I had sampled at festivals in the predominantly Greek community that I covered. Then I started baking banana bread, braising swordfish, and blending chickpeas, paprika and lemon juice into hummus. The act of following a recipe down to the letter—I was too scared to deviate by even a quarter-teaspoon—and getting the same result every time was wonderfully reassuring, a way of telling myself that at least I was competent in one area of my life. Eventually I grew confident enough to start throwing small dinner parties, adding fish stew and cornbread to my repertoire.

I also found myself returning again and again to one particular dish: baked chicken with shell-shaped pasta. It was easy to make and it had been my favorite dish growing up, the one I always requested for my birthday. My mom fancied it up for guests by adding pats of jam to the top of the chicken before baking it, but I preferred the simpler original version. I made it a lot for myself in Florida. It always tasted like home.

And then, suddenly, the job ended. Feeling adrift, I headed to southern Africa as a volunteer teacher in Namibia, having received just three weeks of training before being sent to a remote village without phones or computers. I struggled to explain English grammar and sentence structure while my young students laughed at my feeble attempts.

Plus, there was the matter of cooking: Meat was expensive, finding good-quality cuts was difficult and my two-room house had only a plug-in camp stove. I tried to be creative with the few ingredients that were available on the rare occasion I could hitchhike to a grocery store. I plucked papayas from the tree outside my bedroom for breakfast and created a lentil stew with tomatoes, onions and rice. Every successful meal felt like a validation of my ability to survive. My increasing confidence in the kitchen led me to relax more around my students. Soon I organized a bunch of small English classes for adults, too.

After a time, I started dreaming about making my old favorite, baked chicken. Yet without an oven I was unsure how to manage it. I wrote Mom a letter, and a week later I received her adaptation. It called for stewing the chicken in a pot instead of baking it. The dish tasted exactly how I remembered, the sharpness of the salt mingling with the smokiness of the paprika. Tears filled my eyes as I savored that meal, and that night my loneliness abated a bit.

I made it again the night I invited a fellow teacher over for dinner as a thank-you for his support. We celebrated the end of the school year and his wife’s pregnancy, and he told me that they had decided to name their child after me.

Years later, I was stateside again, married and with a 2-year-old daughter of my own, when I faced my toughest challenge yet. I lost another newspaper job just as my husband, Drew, was about to leave for graduate school on the other side of the country. As I sent out résumés and filed for unemployment, I lost interest in food. More precisely, I lost interest in eating. When concerned friends visited me, Drew took them aside and whispered: “Please, make Lisa eat.”

Amazingly, within six weeks I had found a new job. Drew left for New York, and I was alone in Oregon with our daughter, Rachel. I took in boarders to help make the mortgage, but my overriding concern was how to fill the weekends. I turned to cooking, resolved to stuff our free time with people and food, and thus began an epic, 10-month stretch of dinner parties.

I invited former colleagues, Rachel’s preschool friends and their parents, members of the chorus I sang with, colleagues at my new job. I made chocolate-chip cake, Cornish game hens, lamb stew, challah and soups that took hours. Sometimes guests brought a dish or two to share. One group of young women contributed a homemade posole so magnificent that I haven’t ever tried to replicate it.

But the staple I always returned to was baked chicken. It seemed almost churlish to offer something so basic as chicken and pasta to guests, but amid all the changes in my life—an absent husband, one career shattered, another one launched—the familiarity of that dish comforted me. At the same time I was feeding my guests, I was also salving my wounds.

After Drew finished grad school, we moved to Arlington, where I’ve had to adjust to a faster-paced life. The dinners I make on weekends now are pretty simple—roast beef, lamb chops, brisket, shepherd’s pie—with the occasional experiment to persuade Rachel, now 9, to try something new. After more than two decades of cooking, I finally trust myself to deviate from recipes: adding more chocolate, omitting the cayenne, replacing onions with leeks, shrugging when I don’t have the full cup of flour or sugar that a recipe calls for.

Sometimes Rachel joins me as I’m cooking. I love to watch her graceful hands crack eggs and measure out baking soda. One of the first things I taught her to make was baked chicken and shells. It’s her favorite dinner, the one she requests for her birthdays and end-of-the-school-year celebrations. I preheat the oven and sprinkle the salt; she scatters the paprika and parsley.

I haven’t yet told her what that meal represents to me: overcoming insecurity, tamping down loneliness, willing myself to start over. Right now, it’s enough for me to demonstrate that I’m no longer cooking through adversity. Instead, I’m cooking by heart.

Lisa Lednicer is Arlington Magazine’s associate editor. This essay first appeared in SisterWriterEaters, a collection of essays published this year by Griffith Moon and available through the publisher or at Barnes & Noble.

Related Stories

Categories: People