“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.”
― Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
Every time I cook for my father he asks the same question: “Jane, when did you become so interested in food?”
He doesn’t seem to give much credit to the initial culinary education that I received from him, the man who can spend the entirety of a meal waxing poetically about a memorable dish he ate while traveling 20 years ago, and from my mother, who fed her youngsters sophisticated fare like Coquilles St. Jacques and took a young, impressionable me on her errands to both the gourmet and health food stores. In fact, my epicurean passions should really have already been quite evident when, as a toddler at the National Gallery of Art cafeteria, I popped the pacifier out of my mouth to politely, and accurately, order a chocolate mousse from the incredulous man behind the counter.
Although I was born with a good palate to two food lovers, I was regrettably a notoriously picky eater for my entire childhood and young adult life. Except for sushi. My brother and I were raised on sushi (from the womb! Doctors’ recommendations be damned!) and so raw fish was always fine. But, more standard American kid fare was a no-go. Hot dogs and hamburgers? Yuck. Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard? Um, why? Pretty much all meat, especially if it were anywhere near a bone or carcass that it came from? Oh, hell no. Even potatoes (besides French fries, of course) were off the table until my aunt cleverly smashed a baked one with butter, salt and pepper and fed me a bite while me eyes were closed.
My unusual brand of picky dictated that I wouldn’t be caught dead eating whatever nonsense was served on those pink Styrofoam trays at the school cafeteria. Instead, I tolerated the questions and comments over the unconventional contents of my brown bag: a quarter head of iceberg lettuce and carrot sticks to be eaten plain, non-sugary yogurt (vacillating between cow, goat and soy-based throughout my life), one Babybel cheese (you know the kind that comes in that red wax that you inevitably squish and warm in your hands, stretching it like play doh and accidentally dropping it into the lovely locks of your grade-school crush?), Triscuits or plain corn chips and probably a piece of fruit or maybe even a fruit roll up just so people didn’t think I was too queer or suspicious.
I think I ate my first peanut butter sandwich in a college dorm room. A best friend once described me as the person who, when out to dinner, orders the most boring thing on the menu. He was right. I had been playing it safe. My unadventurous approach to food mirroring my general lackadaisical attitude toward life.
But now, oh, how the tables have turned. No food is safe around me. I will try absolutely anything and will end up loving most of it. Bone marrow? Give me a tiny spoon a piece of toast, puh-lease! Foie gras? Bien sûr! Spicy Szechuan anything? It had better burn doubly on the way out or it isn’t worth its salt. I still haven’t bothered with a hot dog or a hamburger (before you get all uppity – a QUALITY hamburger is on my 2014 bucket list – I’m just still vetting the options). But, I will NEVER eat ketchup.
But when my father inquires about my interest in food, he isn’t just talking about eating. He is probably really questioning my passion for experiencing life through food – cooking, feeding others, and that distinctive trait I inherited from him – waxing poetically about great meals from long ago. And this, I believe, is a passion that has grown from and has been groomed by the as-of-yet great loves of my life. The first loves, of course, being the unconditional ones I was born to – my parents – but, perhaps the loves that you choose are even that much more influential.
My long-term college boyfriend, Erik, was the first to capture and crush my being so completely as to reshape the entire trajectory of my future and, most notably, my culinary adventure. He had grown up eating his Taiwanese mother’s home cooking and earning spending money by working in crappy chain restaurants (if he reads this, he will resent the word “crappy” in that sentence. Sorry, Erik, but, Red Robin is kind of crappy). When I met him, he was a charming, tattooed, often-stoned, musician/waiter, who occasionally attended the two college classes he was enrolled in: women’s studies and swimming. Sigh.
At first, I had typed “typical” and “directionless” in the previous list of his epithets. But, he was neither. As far as anyone could tell, he knew everyone in our college town and had his hands in everything – the bike shop, the guitar shop, the coffee shop, every gig, bar and restaurant you ever wanted to frequent. He had big plans for his musical and culinary interests, and he was capable of all of them, he just needed a push in the right direction.
I was the doting push he needed, I suppose. But, in comparison, at that time, I was nobody. I was smart-ish, passionate, sort of beautiful in a lanky, big-eyed Sailor Moon sort of way, and deceivingly poised, perhaps. But, mostly, I was markedly overwhelmed and engulfed by too-big emotions, distrustful of myself and scared enough of failure that I typically opted for inactivity.
For some reason, at a house party in mid-January, Erik, set his sights on me, and, wanting to break the ice, chose my lap as the recipient of an overturned bowl of Chex mix. He became the best thing about me for over four years. I gave him my practicality and stability from my good, Episcopalian upbringing, which was enough to push him toward declaring a major in business, to graduate with me, and to allow my parents to buy him his first suit, that hung awkwardly from his hipster-in-skinny-jeans frame.
But Erik gave me so much more. I opened my mouth for him to feed me and the tastes racked my body, opening my eyes and depositing their flavors somewhere deep, deep down into the depths of my being. The very first time he cooked for me, he honored my bland taste buds and cooked chicken breasts, but finished the meal with skewers of fruit and squares of Asian almond jelly, which, in hindsight, is more or less opaque, almond-flavored Jell-O. But, at the time, I thought, “what wonderful, strange human have I stumbled upon?” This man who feeds me some crazy substance known as almond jelly, keeps completely-foreign-to-me Siracha chili sauce close at hand at all times, pays for everything in cash, irons his collection of obscure band T-shirts, and doesn’t own a pair of khaki pants or a blue blazer to wear to the opera…?
When my parents would visit, we would dine at the upscale, southern-style restaurant, so he could wait on us, as he rarely had a Friday or Saturday night off to actually be able to sit down with us. He would coach me on what to order – the shrimp and grits was a bit daring for me, but safe enough as long as they took out the Andouille sausage. We would beam and grab at each other, our young love so infectious and all-consuming. My father would loudly, and jokingly (I think) protest “Jane! Stop kissing the waiter!” I couldn’t stop. I never wanted to.
I remember vividly the way I felt one night, walking in a pair of cowboy boots he had picked out for me at an antique store, our arms around each other, in the rain, exiting whatever local restaurant he had introduced me to, bound for his apartment. Laughing, feeling the sway of a long beaded necklace hanging around my neck, I thought “this is it”.
He took me to the Thai restaurant in town and knew what to order and to order it extra spicy (for him, mild for me). He also worked occasionally at the casual eatery below his apartment where he introduced me to my now perfect go-to food. My general embarrassment and neurotic indecision barring me from actually ordering anything, he would bring me an off-the-menu fried egg sandwich with avocado. He would put a fried egg on anything and call it a meal. And now, so do I. When he was somewhere in between homesickness and the flu, he would make an Asian-flavored chicken noodle soup with spicy chunks of ginger to suck on and cooling slices of daikon radish. I have made some version of that soup (never as good as I remember his being) innumerable times now, usually when I’m floating somewhere between threatening illness and incurable longing.
Years later, after Erik had outgrown me and moved on, I sat in a hip new restaurant, already crowded and buzzing on its opening night. Sitting in the best seats in the house (the bar in front of the kitchen) with my boyfriend, Adam, we asked the chef directly to bring us and our two friends a sampling of everything to share. I had once longed to be the kind of person who could walk into a restaurant and confidently say “bring me whatever you recommend” and that night I was trying to convince myself and everyone in my presence I that I had arrived, that I was that brave gourmand. Out of all the unusual and wonderful things we tried, including a cocktail with a piece of pork belly in it, the thing that made me sit up straighter, close my eyes and sigh was a flavorful, spicy, chicken ramen soup. A panacea of a soup that cured any inkling of illness or longing that had been lingering.
Chef Erik smiled at me surprised and amused as I unflinchingly ate everything he served us. His dreams of having his own restaurant had come true and I couldn’t hide the burning sensation of shining pride, tinged with stinging regret, that maybe I had had some part in the realization of his spectacular vision. Now his soup was available to the masses, or to anyone that succeeding in securing a coveted table, that is, and I paid for it, just like the rest.
Adam, my loving, steadfast companion for over five years in the Post-Erik Era, ever good natured, was unshaken, supportive and happy, even, to attend the restaurant opening, to look Erik and his budding fame in the face, to shake his hand. Because, to Adam, Erik was a just a thread in the fabric of my past. A past he graciously accepted and appreciated for the present it had created. A present that fed him so fully, that opened his mouth and his eyes, creating a craving for a taste which I only I could provide.
I unwittingly captivated Adam’s heart and taste buds the same way Erik had cultivated mine. For our first Valentine’s Day, perhaps a month into our relationship, I surprised Adam with a veggie lasagna, since he had told me it was his favorite food. Well, actually, I prepared two (something he would later wax poetically about himself) – one with my standard recipe and the other with a vegan “cheese” made from cashews and other vegan-friendly ingredients since I was on one of my elimination diets and not eating dairy. He ate both. His eyes gave him away, he was in love with my lasagna(s), and with me. His mom’s lasagna, the meal she prepared for him when he flew home once a year, might forever be a disappointment, if not a reminder of why he had moved out, had grown up, and had once chosen life with me.
We moved in together quickly, perhaps too quickly, both of us delighting in newfound, youthful domesticity. We painted our big eat-in kitchen a soothing cornflower blue and let that room absorb our hours. It gave way to endless dozens of cookies, muffins and scones he would share proudly with his alpha male finance cronies; experiments in recreating the things I craved most from my travels in Italy like fried squash blossoms and pasta with a sauce of tuna and olives – grinning, he would insist that I explain the process, cooking show style, in Italian. Despite our often violent ups and downs, being in that cornflower kitchen always brought us back together, confirmed that we were a good team as we hosted Bring Your Own Topping pizza nights (as an excuse for me to experiment with dough recipes and for us to lovingly care for our “dough babies” as we swaddled and cajoled them to grow).
A best friend from his prestigious preparatory boarding school came to stay with us one weekend and I busied myself preparing fresh squeezed orange juice and gorgeously layered yogurt parfaits for them to eat upon rising, so as to be satiated until I could return from my Saturday morning exercise routine and prepare them a proper brunch. I happily whirred around the kitchen, whipping up a frittata and bruschette and colorful salads and proudly serving them to our grateful, vegetarian guest and Adam, who sat silently beaming with pride. In an atypical, overt display of affection, he grabbed me, wrapping his arms around my waist and pulling me into his lap. In that moment, I felt the words that never actually left his lips, “this is it.”
But at some point, the thing that had given me so much joy – feeding Adam, crafting something with my hands that would delight and surprise him – became something I couldn’t bear. Once, in the escalating heat of a fight, I had shouted “I don’t want the rest of my life to be ‘what’s for dinner?’!” And despite my gastronomic passions, I had meant it.
The last gift Adam gave me before we split up was a book for my birthday. In a world dominated by kindles and gift cards, he always gave me a painstakingly, thoughtfully chosen, physical book. Usually hardback, even. As our relationship slowly and painfully crumbled, I think I became more pained by these carefully curated books and the sentiments behind them.
Preparing to leave him at home (and, unknowingly, for good) as I returned to my work as a tour guide in Europe, I was in a reading funk, thinking I needed to immerse myself in books in French or Italian or at least books about European history, or something. Adam, as patient as ever, despite his longing for me to stay, just urged me to read the most recent book he had bought me, saying, in his simplistic manner, that he thought I would really like it. And so I ungratefully, begrudgingly cracked the spine of Like Water for Chocolate, the last book that would speak to me for Adam, speaking in words he could never personally articulate. It spoke of a lifelong passion for experiencing life through food – through cooking and feeding others, as well as eating – a passion that grew from and had been groomed by the great loves (and losses) of a life. It was a beautiful story that waxed poetically about the great, meaningful, memorable meals of a lifetime.
So, when my father inquires, likely rhetorically, about my “interest” in food, I just shrug and smile. It would be a lot to explain that food is my candle, lit by the loves of my life. And now, as my soul simmers, yearning to boil, like water for chocolate, I wait for the next breath of oxygen — the breath that will fan the flames and ignite the next course of my life.