It started when I was a freshman in high school. We'd be sitting at the kitchen table, the three of us, eating dinner, when my father would lift his head from his plate and say it: "You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants." Sometimes, for good measure, he'd slap the table and let loose a long ooooh of contentment. It didn't seem to matter what we were eating. It could have been some sliced tomatoes, or a bowl of mashed potatoes, or some fish that he'd fried in a pat of butter. At least every couple of weeks, he said it. To me, it sounded like tacky bragging, the kind of proud exaggeration that fathers specialize in. It's the suburban man's equivalent of ripping open his shirt and beating his chest with his fists. I would shrink into my chair, blushing hotly, the moment it crossed the threshold of his lips. I was mortified by the weird pleasure he took in our family meal. After a while, I could even sense it coming. I'd mouth the words before he could say them: You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants!
But now I'm old enough to admit that he was right. It's not that we knew how to cook especially well, or that we always ate food that was particularly good. There were hot dogs sometimes, and cans of baked beans. Our garlic came in a jar, minced and ready, and our butter was known to go rancid. What was so satisfying, I think, was something else. It was the steady rhythm of meeting in the kitchen every night, sitting down at the table, and sharing a meal. Dinner didn't come through a swinging door, balanced on the arm of an anonymous waiter: it was something that we made together. We built our family that way — in the kitchen, seven nights a week. We built a life for ourselves, together around that table. And although I couldn't admit it then, my father was showing me, in his pleasure and in his pride, how to live it: wholly, hungrily, loudly.
When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be. When my father sat down at the dinner table, he saw more than what was on his plate. He saw his childhood as the son of two Polish immigrants; his youth in a working-class neighborhood in 1930s Toronto; his immigration to the U.S. after medical school; his troubled first marriage; his first three children; the beautiful woman in a brown faux-fur mini-dress who danced with him at a Christmas party; their move to Oklahoma; his successful private practice; his big house in the suburbs; and me, his fourth child, born when he was just shy of fifty. No wonder he was proud. He made a good life for himself. He might as well have won the lottery, for all his glee over those tomatoes or potatoes or fried fish.
When I walk into my kitchen today, I bring all of this with me.
Like most people who love to cook, I like the tangible things. I like the way the knife claps when it meets the cutting board. I like the haze of sweet air that hovers over a hot cake as it sits, cooling, on the counter. I like the way a strip of orange peel looks on an empty plate. But what I like even more are the intangible things: the familiar voices that fall out of the folds of an old cookbook, or the scenes that replay like a film reel across my kitchen wall. When we fall in love with a certain dish, I think that's what we're often responding to: that something else behind the fork or the spoon, the familiar story that food tells.
I grew up in the kitchen. When I was a baby, my mother would put me on a blanket on the kitchen floor, where I would bang around with pots and pans and spoons. I crashed my first dinner party at the age of three, and I still remember it — mainly because my grand entrance consisted of falling, half asleep and holding a unicorn hand puppet, into a family friend's swimming pool. When I was old enough to reach the kitchen counter, my mother let me make what I called "mixtures": weird, what-would-this-taste-like concoctions made from such winning combinations as Diet Coke and cake flour, or sugar, garlic salt, and food coloring. As a kid, I loved to play the card game Old Maid, but I didn't call it by that name: I called it Homemade, a word that made much more sense to me. Everything interesting, everything good, seemed to happen when food was around.
My family believes in cooking. It's what we do, where we put our money and our free time. I may have grown up in landlocked Oklahoma, but I ate my first lobster at age six, when my father came home from an East Coast business trip with a cooler full of them. He upended it on the kitchen floor, spilling them onto the linoleum like giant spiders, and while they clattered around on their spindly legs, I stood on a chair and screamed. Then, of course, I had a taste of their sweet meat. That shut me right up.
This is my family. My sister Lisa keeps a plot in a community garden, where she grows her own asparagus, lettuce, and snap peas. She also makes a near-perfect scone and, for a while, wanted to open a chocolate shop. My brother Adam can whip up a terrific impromptu tomato sauce and, with only the slightest prompting, will tell you where to find the finest gelato from Italy to the Eastern Seaboard. My brother David has a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and owns a handful of restaurants in Washington, D.C. He can also roast a mean piece of beef. A recent Christmas in our clan consisted of forty-eight hours in the kitchen, a twenty-five-pound turkey, five quarts of soup, four dozen scones, three gallons of boozed-up eggnog, two dozen biscuits, and a bushel of spinach, creamed.
I learned to cook because it was a given. But I didn't learn in any sweet, at-the-apronstrings way. Neither of my grandmothers ever stood me on a chair and showed me how to make biscuits or beef stew. To tell you the truth, I hardly remember my grandmothers' cooking. My father's mother, Dora, used to send us Jewish holiday cookies from her kitchen in Toronto, but she packed them in a cardboard shoebox, so by the time they arrived, they were only crumbs.
I learned to cook because the kitchen was where things happened. No one told me to, but I hung around, and I was comfortable there. I learned how to handle a knife. I learned how to cook a string bean by eye, until its color turned bright green. It was no big deal. I hardly even thought about it. By a sort of osmosis, I picked up a sense of comfort in the kitchen, and a hunger that lasted long past breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For a long time, I thought that this meant that I should be a chef. Interests came and interests went, but at the end of the day, I always wound up at the stove. It was the only place I really wanted to be. It seemed only natural, then, to try to make something of it. I can cook, I thought, and I like to cook, so maybe I should be a cook. I should try working in a restaurant kitchen, I decided.
So one summer, the summer after my sophomore year of college, a friend set me up with an internship at a well-known vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. I was a vegetarian at the time; it was one of those interests that came and went. I was assigned to the pantry station, prepping salads and plating desserts. I got to eat a lot of day-old ginger cake, which was pretty fun, and with the exception of the time the chef handed me an onion and asked me breezily, as though it were as obvious as brushing my teeth, to slice it "as fine as an angel's eyelash," it went all right. But I didn't love it. I wasn't even sure I liked it. I never saw the faces of the people who ate what I had prepared. I never saw anything but my corner of the counter, actually. I didn't like the discontinuity between the kitchen and the dining room, between the procedure of cooking and the pleasure of eating.
I didn't last long. I didn't leave college for cooking school. I got a degree in human biology and another in French, and then another in anthropology. If I had stayed my course, I'd probably be standing in front of a class somewhere, talking about the concept of solidarité and social security in France. But then, you wouldn't be reading this.
All along, something kept calling me back to the table. Every time I opened my mouth, a story about food came out. In July of 2004, I decided that I had to listen. I left my PhD program with a master's degree instead. In an effort to make something of my madness, I started a blog called Orangette, a space where I could store all my recipes and the long-winded tales that spun from them. I named it for one of my favorite chocolate confections — a strip of candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate — and started to fill it with my favorite people, places, and meals.
I wanted a space to write about food. That's all, really. But what I got was something much better. I got an excuse for long afternoons at the stove, and for tearing through bags of flour and sugar faster than should be allowed by state law. I got a place to tell my stories and a crowd of people who, much to my surprise, seemed eager to listen and share. What started as a lonely endeavor came to feel like a conversation: a place where like-minded people could swap recipes and dinner plans, a kind of trading post where cakes and chickpeas are perfectly valid currency. I'm not the only one, I learned, who believes that the kitchen, and the food that comes from it, is where everything begins. What started as a simple love for food grew to have a life of its own — and a life that, in turn, has changed mine.
Now, of course, all this is not to say that my kitchen is full of sunshine and puppies and sweet-smelling flowers that never wilt. When I cook, there's often a lot of cursing. I've made soups that tasted like absolutely nothing, as though the flavors had miraculously united to form a perfect zero sum. I once charred a pork loin so thoroughly that it looked like a tree stump after a forest fire. I have eaten my fair share of peanut butter and jelly and two-dollar beans and rice from the taqueria down the street. But I still believe in paying attention to those meals, no matter how fast or frustrating. I believe in what they can show me about the place where I live, about the people around me, and about who I want to be. That, to me, is the "meat" of food. That's what feeds me — why I cook and why I write.
That's why this book is called A Homemade Life. Because, in a sense, that's what we're building — you, me, all of us who like to stir and whisk — in the kitchen and at the table. In the simple acts of cooking and eating, we are creating and continuing the stories that are our lives.
Copyright © 2009 by Molly Wizenberg