About six months before I moved to Iowa, long before I had any idea I’d be gardening, Steve and I were on the phone talking about our future living situation. We’d determined his first-year graduate school apartment wasn’t big enough for the two of us, and he’d been looking for another place for us to live. This required a great relinquishing of control on my part—I couldn’t fly out there from D.C. and look at places with him, and I had told him I trusted him to find something that worked for us.
That night, he gushed about an apartment he’d found after a fellow student in his program had decided she didn’t want to live there anymore. He raved about its hardwood floors, its closet space, the amazing sunroom, the fabulous location.
“There’s only one problem,” he said. “It doesn’t have what I would call a real kitchen.”
I sat up straight on my couch in my apartment in Northern Virginia, looking around at the apartment I’d worked so hard to find and make my own. “What do you mean it doesn’t have a real kitchen?”
“Well, it kind of has a galley kitchen,” he said. “It has a stove, and a little bit of a counter, and a sink, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, and a refrigerator.”
“And you signed a lease?” I said. “For a year?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s a great apartment.”
If he had looked to the east, he would have seen the mushroom cloud from my head exploding. “Do you have any idea what it means for me not to have a kitchen I can cook in?” I said. “Cooking is my therapy. I won’t be sane if I don’t have a kitchen.”
The story ended happily, at least for a time, though it required some more negotiating before he was able to go back, break the lease, and then seek out a new place, the place we ended up living in together, the apartment that spanned the bottom floor of a house and had a wonderful, giant farmhouse kitchen that fit all our friends and our music, and, after we split up, was where I worked and cooked and cried and strategized next steps and, finally, came back to life.
I am still friends with the man who took that lease off Steve’s hands, and the first time we went to a party at that same apartment, I walked in the kitchen, turned around and said to Steve, “Are you kidding me? Do you know me at all?” The kitchen was even smaller and more awkward than I’d imagined from the description. Between that and the winters, I would have never made it a single year in Iowa had we moved in there.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those days anymore, but on some nights, nights like last night, when I stumbled home from work overwhelmed and head-spun and exhausted, when the processing in my mind was overtaking the carefully planned to-do list I’d set for myself, I remember what I said back in 2005. Cooking is my therapy.
And so I walked in the door, took stock of what I had and what I needed, ran to the market for local produce and milk, and came home to make my own versions of comfort food: rosemary-artichoke hummus, which ended up as dinner atop a zatar-crusted pita; soup made from homemade stock and laced with Parmaggiano-Reggiano rinds I’d been saving in the freezer for just such a purpose; and my first-ever pot pie.
As I stirred the sauce for the pot pie, the flour, butter, stock, milk and sage transforming into something thick and glossy over the many minutes, I thought about my grandmother and how she taught me to make roux and transform it into cream or cheese sauce. And I thought about my friend Erin, who gave me the flat-headed whisk I use to make such a sauce just before she moved to Sweden to live with the man she had loved for years. She married him after he proposed to her somewhere over the Atlantic halfway between Sweden and the United States.
And I thought about the Swanson pot pies my babysitter would heat up for me on nights when my parents would go out for dates when I was a kid, and the smell of my mother’s perfume as she put on her dress and makeup, and how she and my father would sneak into my room to kiss me goodnight when they got home. They never thought I woke up, but I always did, and I loved the ultimate safety of those shadowy hellos.
Cooking is my therapy, and my memory, and just one of the ways I express myself. And on nights like last night, it is what brings me back to what’s most important.