No more restaurants, my husband and I said to our daughters when the stay-at-home order began. And no takeout. Just too risky.
But I’m a good cook — inventive, curious, mostly patient. I’ve been pressure-tested in ways that have made me adaptive and flexible. I understand substitutions on almost a molecular level because, for the first nine years of my daughter Sammi’s life, I learned to cook in a gauntlet of food restrictions I could never have predicted.
I learned to cook first without almost all forms of acid: no citrus or tomato or chocolate for my toddler with severe reflux.
Then I learned to cook without dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and wheat (all at once) when she was misdiagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis.
Eventually, worst of all, I learned to cook without fat after a surgeon nicked her thoracic duct after cardiac surgery.
So after all of that, cooking normal, unrestricted meals every night while we’re staying at home seemed like it would be no big deal. At first, it was exciting — unlimited time to make whatever I wanted. I even started a journal for the first time since middle school: a few sentences about our day and then a note about what was for dinner and what we watched on tv. My tone was light and my dinners were pretty impressive. I felt proud of the fact that my family could eat well — both in quantity and quality — with me at the stove.
Over the ensuing weeks, I learned to be careful about planning in a whole new way than I’d learned when Sammi was little. Now she and her sister Ronni are both teenagers, and instead of planning around holes in our diet from medical restrictions, I started planning around holes in our diet from grocery shortages. It was — and remains — nothing like shortages in the history of our country or the world; the stores are full of food, and after one fraught trip to our local grocery on March 19, we’ve been ordering our supplies online. They simply arrive at our door, where we sit on the stoop and wipe down package after package of treasures, but always, there are some things the grocery store doesn’t have.
It’s not a real hardship. There are hundreds of other things to eat, thousands probably. But still: where is the midwest’s supply of tofu?, I whine. And: why isn’t there any flour? And bummer, they’re out of organic raspberries.
I want to slap myself when these thoughts cross my mind. Who do I think I am to lament anything while my family sits healthy in our home getting groceries delivered by someone more willing to enter a store than I am? You’re an asshole, I think to myself, and then a place inside my amygdala quivers as I hover over my notes to adjust my dinner plan for the week.
I remember the last time I wrote meals down in a notebook, suddenly.
It was when dairyeggssoywheatnuts all disappeared from our diet at once, and I had to learn a whole new way of being our in-house cook. I had to learn what gluten did and how to approximate it or what to give up trying to approximate; I had to understand which faux milk behaved how in which recipes that remained to us; I had to put on a cheery face and exclaim positively over strange grains and odd tidbits from foreign places. I had to get deeply, deeply creative with what the universe had left for us and pretend it was easy.
In that way, this time is quite similar. Instead of trying to approximate a treat for a five-year-old whose school has suddenly announced popsicles for everyone, I am using carefully crafted meals to delight that child’s older sister whose senior year has been irreparably wrecked.
Lemon orzo soup! I cheer, and she smiles a little.
I make a chocolate layer cake with “THIS CRAP WILL PASS” written on the top in mini chocolate chips, and she applauds with a sad grin.
I pull a small tub of goat cheese from the grocery bag. Surprise! I say, and hand it to her as she thanks me, excited.
A huge bag of grapefruit replaces our usual twice-weekly replenished tubs of berries, and both girls dig in with spiked spoons, delighted, while I sigh in relief.
It’s a dangerous path, I know, associating food with comfort and reward (for them and for me), but what else do I have? Food has been the symbol of everything in my mothering so far: success, failure, relief, accomplishment, health, illness. I think of a poem I wrote down in a journal as a teenager, not knowing how much it would mean to adult me, in my house in the middle of a pandemic, feeding my children little pieces of my soul, again.
Rebecca, Sweet-One, Little-One
by S. Griffin
Rebecca, sweet-one, little-one
Siobhan Levy, fur-pie, loveliness,
Sweet-face, sleepy head, Becca
Becalla, lovely-one, loved-one,
Sweet-pie, my favorite, my dear
One, nudnik, silly-face, sweetness,
dear-heart, little terror, little
madness, how many messages you
draw for me,
“I love you Mommy
Becky, love, love, Becky, Love,
I hate you Mommy”
all those secrets you
(“don’t tell my teacher, they
write it on a form, they
put it in a file for
hundreds to read.”)
hot repository of
all your moods
have birthed you
like a needle
through my life.
A couple of weeks ago, we started ordering take-out once a week. We wait til they’ve left the food on our porch, then we move it to our own dishes. I can pretend it’s ours, can pretend I had some role in feeding my family that day — all while, finally, I breathe long enough to feed myself.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday blog post hosted by Mardra of MardraSikora.com. This week’s sentence was “What’s Cooking?”