Why I Cook to Show I Care
When life gets tough, I head to the kitchen. How come?
When I have a friend in need — possibly due to a health crisis, a kid crisis, a work crisis or some other kind of crisis — I cook. It feels satisfying and right to make something good and nourishing or good and sweet to help make life a tiny bit better for someone I care about. So right now, I’m cooking. Today it’s matzo ball soup. The puffy balls are dancing around in simmering chicken broth, bumping up against bright orange circles of carrots. Earlier in the week, I delivered still-warm gluten-free chocolate chip banana bread with homemade strawberry jam. Another night: I pulled vegetarian eggrolls straight out of oven and onto a plate, covered it with foil and drove as quickly as I could to my friend’s house so the eggrolls would stay crispy and crunchy.
I’ve been thinking about my immediate urge to cook when someone I love is having a tough time. It’s hardly unique, I know. For me, it feels natural. I spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen as it is, and it’s often just as easy to cook for six or eight as it is for four. Double the ingredients, grease two pans instead of one and adjust the cooking time as needed. Voila.
But I wonder if my caring-by-cooking instinct might also be just that: an instinct. Something inherent, perhaps even inherited. My mom’s a great cook, and when I’m sad or sick, all I want is her perfectly poached, and perfectly comforting, egg-on-toast. My dad’s kitchen prowess is more infamous: clove fried rice and rye flour pancakes, both utterly inedible. But today, I’m looking further back in time, mentally tracing my other culinary roots.
On one side (my dad’s), I’ve got Grammy Older: My urban, highly educated, world-traveling Jewish grandmother is an obvious inspiration for my matzo balls and savory chicken stock. But although Hot Milk Cake is still one of our favorite “secret” family recipes, one that has been handed down through generations, I don’t really think of “cooking” when I think about Grammy Older. Instead, I think of card games, evenings at the theater and her matching set of well-worn suitcases. Regardless, I have many vivid food associations from my years spent visiting Grammy Older: I think of butterscotch candies glinting like precious citrine in a crystal dish on the coffee table in her Florida condominium. I think of eggy French toast for breakfast, pungent shrimp scampi at her favorite restaurant and Bryer’s chocolate ice cream, always in a cone, for dessert.
On the other side (my mom’s): Grammy Lawes, my rural, hard-working, farmer’s-wife Protestant grandmother, who raised six kids mostly in near poverty in the house my grandfather built. My grandmother planted and tended the vegetables and my grandfather tended and slaughtered the cows, plus an occasional pig. Nothing ever went to waste. (That being said, I asked my mom if Grammy ever made bone broth. She insists she never did).
When I think about Grammy Lawes, I get downright hungry remembering her homemade doughnuts filled with hidden air pockets in the dough, just begging to be drizzled with sweet maple syrup. My mouth waters recalling her tangy bread and butter pickles and zesty tomato, onion and green pepper “pickalili.” Grammy baked flakey biscuits for her chicken and biscuits, perhaps the world’s best comfort food, combining juicy poached chicken and plenty of savory gravy. When I think of Grammy Lawes, I think of cold potato salad with just the right amount of peas and hard-boiled eggs. I think of her homemade country bread, still warm from the oven and slathered with sticky, creamy peanut butter. I think of opaque Tupperware containers of every shape and size piled high on the back corner of the kitchen counter, always filled with sweets and treats, just waiting to be uncovered.
My warm, happy food associations blend seamlessly with my warm, happy memories of cherished time spent with both sets of my grandparents. Whether I was sitting at Grammy Lawes’ big wooden kitchen table or at the modern glass-topped table in Grammy Older’s dining room, I felt loved. Cared for. Protected. Nourished. Supported. Safe.
That’s just how I want my friends and family to feel when life deals them a low blow. So today, with a heavy heart once again, I’m cooking.
Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a long-time professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.