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Learning to Speak the Language of Food

Cooking once filled me with joy. Now, I’m starting over.

Jessica Brauer
Dec 4, 2018 · 6 min read
Credit: CSA Images/Vetta/Getty Images

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Days that felt like weeks ticked off the calendar. My kitchen sink sat barren except for one lone white plate stained with egg yolk from the last meal I had — four, maybe five, days before. Every moment after that egg felt like a daze.

This happens to me now. My appetite slips away, day by day, until the thought of eating makes my stomach churn. I feel the acid in my belly swirling in a noxious, barren environment. I feed myself nothing but black coffee and chilled vodka.

My appetite for food begins to feel no different from my appetite for joy. My body aches in grief, consumed by darkness, lurking in the corners behind my tired smiles and assurances of being just fine. Slowly, I slip from feeling blue with a stomach for dry toast to questioning the will to take my next breath, struggling to hold myself up, drained from a week without ever thinking of reaching for a fork.

After culinary school, a bakery, and years of building my confidence in the kitchen, I’d declared food my ultimate love language — the way in which I cultivate relationships, show affection, and wholeheartedly bare my soul. Making food was an act of endearment, a profoundly intimate exchange where I say, “Here’s my heart, take it,” and know that everything is just as it should be.

Whether watching vodka dance around the ice in my gilded, vintage highball glass or feeling the steam fog my eyes as I bend over my beloved cast-iron pot bubbling with shepherd’s pie, the kitchen is where magic happens. Hearts come together, bellies and hands warm, fingers wrap around porcelain bowls. Our lips creep higher as we smile toothy grins stippled with playful dimples. Tables burst with dishes, spoons, and spatulas crisscrossed precariously around half-empty wine bottles. Lidded pots are tipped onto trivets as hands reach forward and back, forward and back.

Flushed faces, full hearts, tight pants.

No other room would ever have the magnetic energy of the kitchen.

For a moment, we are unfazed by the stinging bites of our reality, just as we are unfazed by the tower of soiled dishes just behind the dining room wall. We are entirely encompassed by the ignorant safety of the table — happy, comfortable, unafraid, armed with four prongs, shielded from the monsters for one more meal.

Whether blissful or heart-wrenching, food has punctuated each year of my life. It’s been a constant touchstone for my humanity, reaching deep into the thick of my mind, tickling my belly and flushing my cheeks: warm cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, Dad’s chicken and dumplings in the bitter cold, Bloody Marys every Sunday, my first Thanksgiving alone.

It has brought me to jovial tears of delight. It has collapsed me to my knees.

My husband’s body pressed against mine as his breath gently danced through my hair, making the skin on the back of my neck electrify. In front of us, heaps of chopped vegetables were stacked purposefully at the corners of the block cutting board. I sighed into him as he wrapped his arms around my waist and swayed our bodies forward and back, forward and back.

A pop from the stove jerked us upright from our slump — two bodies holding each other upright just enough to stand. His grip let go, and I spun back to the sizzling pan, adjusting, swinging the oil across the hot surface.

This was the place where our love lived unabashedly, where our hearts opened up and our bodies pulled in. No other room would ever have the magnetic energy of the kitchen. We were good to each other — good for each other — among the clanks of pans and sticky heat punctuated with wafts of garlic and chiles, seared pork chops and wine.

Until we weren’t.

Grandma kept a bag of York peppermint patties in the drawer of her fridge. Part of me believes the same bag traveled from house to house, with each move and upgraded appliance.

Every time I catch the glint of a silver bag tucked away on store shelves or in a friend’s candy drawer, I feel the warmth of her hugs and the sweet comfort of how she hissed when she laughed. Her eyes got tiny while her shoulders shook, and her energy enveloped the entire room.

When she passed away, I inherited her silver goblets. They’re tacky, overly ornate stemmed cups etched with a faded scrolling B — gifted to her and my grandpa for their silver anniversary. I drink water and wine and vodka and juice from them at gatherings, in bed, on the couch, and while I paint my toenails on the bathroom floor. They’ve grown tarnished and worn; they’ll never see the long stretch of a formal dining table crowded with everyone’s Sunday best.

But when I wrap my hand around the cold silver, I feel Grandma on the couch across from me, drinking her cheap Moscato, talking about the new pope and how she couldn’t believe what “Funny Face” was doing to make headlines this week. That’s what she called Donald Trump in the pre-election years, flabbergasted by his cartoonish nature and absurd behavior, entirely unable to remember his name. She died before he was elected. I like to think she’s better off, never feeling her tiny-eyed, knee-slapping laughter shrink under the darkness of Funny Face’s world.

Ashley and I sat in a cloud of our own smoke and coffee breath, eating rubbery eggs and greasy bacon in the local 24-hour diner. Those meals didn’t taste like anything, but they meant everything. The subpar food and cranky waitresses were a backdrop to the moments where we poured our hearts on the table, tears and screams and slamming fists restrained. We were young and naive and glossy-eyed, trying to find the answers.

Magic can be made over ramen noodles and microwave popcorn while time is wasted entirely among prime rib or the family’s Christmas ham.

We found ourselves and lost ourselves over and over again at 2 a.m., lips pressed to cigarettes, bare legs stuck to the sticky, worn vinyl, proving with every burned cup of coffee and soggy crinkle-cut fry that it’s not the quality of the food or the formality of the affair that makes a meal but rather the quality of human you sit across from. Magic can be made over ramen noodles and microwave popcorn while time is wasted entirely among prime rib or the family’s Christmas ham.

I sat across the table from my dad as he grinned, watching me eat. I was freshly divorced. My slumped shoulders and sunken eyes hid little from the world, and to Dad, they were fluorescent, hiding even less. He knew I was shattered, defeated by the months of fighting and petrified by my awareness of pain in the months ahead. He looked through me — not with pity, but with bright eyes that saw straight into my mucky, hurting, confused core.

We talked about how hard it can be to cook for one, to find the motivation to prepare a meal with the same gusto and heart as you do for the ones you love. How training yourself to buy less food seems so difficult, and how one lapse in grocery-store habits can mean you’ll be crying tears of “for the love of God, make it end” into your pot roast after a weeklong commitment to the cause.

“Did you get enough to eat, Sweets?” he asked, walking to the kitchen, shaking the remaining leftovers in the pan, forward and back, forward and back.

I nodded and he sunk back into the chair next to me. “There’s something about watching your kids eat,” he said, “It makes me feel incredibly happy; like I know you’re taken care of.”

“I like it,” he chimed.

“I like it too,” I smiled.

“You know,” he said, “What if we cooked for ourselves the way we cooked for others — with the same love and attention? How different would it be?”

He stood back up, buzzing to the dirty dishes on the counter behind us. I sat wide-eyed, my mind racing around what he’d just said.

“Everything would be different,” I thought. All of it.

Jessica Brauer

Written by

wyoming gal. dreamer. wine-drinker. i write things.

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