Have you ever had a kitchen epiphany? They’re realizations had over the cooktop, thoughts that materialize as bubbles break the surface of a simmer or deep thoughts that appear while whisking.
Yesterday I had the craziest kitchen epiphany.
It was a moment I should have been frustrated. It was a gloomy, quintessential ‘bad day’ where plans were cancelled and holiday Wal-Mart lines were agonizingly long. I was grumbling about something, my face etched into a frown. Isaac was with me. We were riding in the car, rain hitting the windows, music the only sound in the vehicle.
We were bummed. Moving to a new city is hard. A misty drizzle of disappointment had moved into the car with the dampness of early winter.
Finally we reached my apartment. No parking to be found, we circled the block three times in silence. (Parking a Hummer in Portland, by the way, is about as easy as fitting a traincar into a shoebox.)
At long last I stood in my kitchen, a space so small if I stand with my hands on my hips both elbows touch the walls. Rain smattered the windows. I currently own one portable cast-iron cooktop, one saute pan, and one saucepan. The cupboards have dried pasta, minute rice, peanut butter and coffee beans.
It was, indeed, a bleak situation.
I could sense my frustration building. It was aided by hunger, so I did the only thing I could and turned on the cooktop.
It took me 40 minutes to make dinner. 40 minutes of silence, 40 minutes that I cooked and Isaac sat; both lost to the thoughts in our own heads.
And that’s when it hit me. I was heating water, watching bubbles crop up along the bottom of the saucepan. My frustration lifted off of me, replaced by the rhythm of the kitchen. The small space suddenly didn’t feel so small, it felt like a station in a restaurant. My kitchen experience took over and left my thoughts to trail in and out of the garlic slicing, the pasta cooking, the roux thickening.
If anyone knows me personally, it is evident I am comfortable in silence. I am a listener, not a speaker. Unless I have ample time to write out my thoughts and practice speaking them aloud, words do not naturally flow out of my mouth. I pride myself on being an observer because I am comfortable along the wall, watching, taking in a scene and later writing everything down. I speak through written words. I struggle to speak out loud.
At moments when it is most crucial for me to speak, I often find my tongue strangled against my throat. My hands itch to be busy.
But when I cook! That’s where it changes.
My thoughts began to flow freely. I strained the pasta. I felt, in that moment, as Bee Wilson describes in her book, Consider the Fork, “[kitchens] filled with ghosts. You may not see them, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity.”
I knew, as I stirred cheese sauce over that tiny stovetop, that I felt as every loving mother, sister, wife, sweetheart ever had while cooking. It is an extension of yourself. Chefs, those that are serious and dedicated and driven by that vein of crazy, passionate madness, know the feeling. To give someone a dish is to give them an extension of yourself; your heart on a plate.
I knew how my own mother felt, making us dinner every night from scratch, tirelessly spoiling us with dishes made with love. When she was exhausted, the meals were simple. But they were always from scratch. Days of ordering pizza were rare and reserved for when Mom was out of town and Dad had to cook. (Even then, he usually recruited me.)
I had never fully been in tune with what it meant to have a plate in front of me made by someone’s hands, made, as Hallmark cards say, with love. It was an idea that had flirted with my thoughts briefly in the early weeks of culinary school when our chefs were demonstrating proper classical French techniques. I knew that the meals they were putting before me were technically correct, the kind of old-school cooking that hardly existed anymore. I tried to savor every bite because I knew it was made with intention.
But to face a simple meal, a regular dinner, and realize it was also made with love and intention is a concept I hadn’t fully given dedication to.
I was tired. I was frustrated. But I was putting everything I had into homemade mac’n’cheese, stirring all my best intentions in with pasta I had kept close watch on. Maybe I couldn’t express those things out loud. But they find their way into the hearts of the person they’re intended for in the end, one forkful at a time.
Maybe because my kitchen is so small all of my warm, buzzing thoughts were bouncing off the wall, magnifying themselves and warming the space. Still, I was gripped by contentment, my frustration was edged out by peace.
Kitchens are warm and welcoming places. They are the best room of any house. To cook is to speak, to give someone a meal is to express yourself to them. It is not only an offering of sustenance but an offering of time, intention, care and dedication.
It took me 40 minutes. I did everything from scratch. We had EasyMac easily available in a little blue box above the microwave, but nothing would ever be as satisfying as homemade mac’n’cheese– not because it tasted better but because it was made. It was crafted, no matter how simply.
For those that cook there is an invisible thread that connects us all, a warmth that emanates from all of our stoves. I always found peace knowing that while I was mis en placing my station in a restaurant, countless other tired, driven, passionate cooks were doing the same.
It was is if we all did it together as an invisible task force with the sole intention of extending our hearts, whether we knew it consciously or not.
It was a sappy, holiday-esque moment of realization. To cook is to share; to cook is to connect. I spend my free time trying to absorb as much food culture as I can. I feel an inexplicable draw towards the universal warmth of the dinner table.
We ate our mac’n’cheese. The drizzly fog lifted from our hungry temperaments. The night turned around, we both left feeling lighthearted after a dreary day.
Maybe this is a well-timed realization with the holidays around the corner. I’ll be baking alongside my mother for Thanksgiving in just a few days, a blessing I don’t want to take for granted.
Those that eat meals made with love may never realize its there. They may never see plates as extensions of hearts.
That’s okay. It’s a quiet connection and a reassuring realization for the one that made the meal.
Think back to the days where your mother urged you to finish your meal. It’s good for you, it gives you energy, it fills you up, it keeps you going. But it was made with love, really and truly. You aren’t just eating green beans.
This is the perfect season and the perfect time to offer up a little thankfulness. When that turkey faces you on the dinner table, loaded (hopefully) with stuffing, glistening with holiday goodness, take two tiny seconds to thank the one who made the meal.
And then do what you’ve been dying to — load up your plate with all the love and goodness and dig in.