I am in my kitchen on this bright Friday morning, surrounded by food. Okay, sure—who wouldn’t be, in a kitchen? But I’m not talking about breakfast cereal in the cabinet, orange juice and milk and deli meat in the fridge, coffee beans in my freezer, or the out-of-season clementines shipped from Chile that I was unwise enough to waste $4.99 plus tax on early last week. I’m talking about food I grew or made myself. Green beans and cherry tomatoes from my garden that I picked half an hour ago. And the challah dough in front of me, soft and with a few sticky spots left as I knead it to smooth elasticity before setting it to rest in the big blue mixing bowl.
It’s comfort food. Not the usual meaning of the term, familiar from pop psychology as either stuff we loved to eat when we were kids (looking at you, mac and cheese!) or stuff we pig out on when we’re stressed (cue Rhapsody for Ben & Jerry’s). A different kind of food, that brings me comfort because I had something to do with it. I planted it and watched it grow, or I’ve made it from scratch so often that the ingredients and proportions take up real estate in my head, like a favorite Shakespeare monologue or show tune. I can recite Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” speech, sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, or throw together challah in my sleep. (Not that I’d be inclined to try. Being mom to a teen and an almost-ten year-old, with three freelance jobs besides, I get little enough quality sleep as it is.)
Maybe this is a foodie thing, but there’s something about making your own bread, or cooking with your own home-grown vegetables and herbs, that’s deeply soothing. Especially in moments of transition, when what you’ve been used to thinking of as your life starts to reshape itself in ways both obvious and subtle. Obvious: My father died two days before Christmas 2012, my mother-in-law thirteen months before that, and my husband and I are still working through the grieving process. When a parent dies, you don’t just lose them; you also lose your sense of yourself as the middle generation, shielded from a too-sharp awareness of your own mortality by the fact that they’re still standing on the road of life ahead of you. Now they’re gone, you’re getting older, and your kids (if you have them) are coming right up behind you. Which puts you in the vanguard role where your parents used to be. I am not ready for that, and I’m not sure anyone is. Yet it comes upon us all, just the same.
Subtle: Our older son is a high-school sophomore. A mere three years away from college. I can now envision the day he’ll be gone, except for holiday breaks when he comes home to visit. He’s talking about schools in Texas, or maybe Georgia—for a native Chicagoan he’s remarkably intolerant of cold winters, speaks longingly of a January where the temperature never drops much below fifty degrees. As for our younger son, he’s reached the age where a hug from Mom is met with an eye roll if it’s in private, dodged outright if attempted in public. He walks himself to and from school, is a stalwart on the chess team, and knows how to slice up a lime without risking his fingertips. Soon enough he’ll be the kid who doesn’t get home from school until dinnertime or after because of basketball practice or choir rehearsal or some other high-school-kid thing. The mom job is shifting under my feet, and though I’ll have more time to focus on writing and editing and audiobooks, the entire publishing world is shifting too—just when I’m having the most trouble mustering the mental energy to keep up with the learning curve.
So I turn to my garden, and my every-three-weeks challah baking ritual. I revel in the abundance of edible green stuff in my own backyard, a visible reminder that some hard work actually does pay off. I savor the feel of the bread dough under my hands, the yeasty scent of it tickling my nose as I work. Even on days when it feels like I can’t do anything else right—think through a scene, write a decent sentence, judge someone else’s manuscript, record just two minutes of an audiobook without a dozen mouth noises and flubs—I can at least make bread. Pick green beans. Slice cherry tomatoes and toss them with feta and garlic as the world’s greatest topping for baked eggplant. Throw nectarines and fresh-picked blueberries—the last fruits of summer—into a baking dish with rolled oats and dark brown sugar and a touch of butter, and voilà, fruit crisp to die for.
I am foodie, hear me roar. Maybe I’m off-balance now, but sooner or later—with a little help from my comfort food—I’ll be back.