I skipped out on talking about Thanksgiving food this year. Don’t get me wrong, I like Thanksgiving. It ranks higher for me than other, soon-to-follow winter holidays, which stress me out with their gift giving. I’m even pretty decent at making Thanksgiving happen: I can cook. Thanksgiving does, however, typically fall pretty close to my mom’s birthday, which laces it with some quiet sadness.
I started this blog in the wake of my mom’s death. At the time, I didn’t really realize that they coincided, but the archives here are a pretty good marker for Everything After. The site is now a little less than five years old. I don’t think I ever thought I would continue for this long.
Grief is a funny thing. We are only allocated a very small amount of time to let it actually affect us. I am still figuring out what that means for all of us humans navigating the world, hurting no small amount. In retrospect, I’ve been doing quite a bit of that figuring-out work here.
Maybe it makes sense to start writing about food as a way to process a mother’s death: home, hearth, succor, nourishment, and all that. But the reason why I started writing here is not so simple or straightforward. I’ve written about my mom here before, but in a very safe way. Let’s just say my mother was not the easiest person to live with. I spent my young adult life trying not to be like her. (Someday, if I ever write about her in a less-than-safe way, it will be because I’ve acquired a bit of bravery that I don’t currently possess.) What I’m trying to say, I guess, was that I doubt that my turn to writing about cooking was some desperate grab for maternal comfort.
Why did I start writing about food and cooking, then? I struggle to conceptualize it in a way that’s not stale or Hallmark-y. “The Yellow House” was so named because I wanted to write about the things that happened within the literal four walls and figurative space of a home, the people who come and go, families biological and chosen, the sometimes safe and ordinary and sometimes radical places that we build around ourselves.
Let the record show that “The Yellow House” is a pretty stupid name, but the phenomena that compel me to write are still the same. When my mother passed, I had been living in sub-Saharan Africa, was just getting over malaria, and was faced with getting my life on track back in the U.S. near immediately. Find a job, find a place to sleep, find a place to be able to fry an egg for yourself when you return home, spent, after a day in a brand new cubicle job, three weeks after your mother has died. Cooking—and writing about it—became an exercise in pulse-taking, a way to check in on myself.
With grief comes strange repercussions and re-formations of personality, and for me it has come in the form of social (and other kinds of) anxiety. Food and cooking have helped me to have something tangible to offer people, a way to be generous when myself, alone, is prickly, withdrawn, and unloveable. Writing about food and sharing recipes is a way of doing that, too, and is a common currency for connection.
Matrilineal relationships, whether wonderful or strained, loom large in our stories about food and cooking. There is a lot of very charged, gendered heritage present in the kitchen, in terms of family lineage and also historically. Modern women have to work hard to strike a balance between honoring that heritage while celebrating the gains that have made it a choice for us to be in that kitchen. I write a lot here about what it means to care about food and cooking, but to be a real person, a working woman with a commute and a hectic travel schedule. I talk here about home cooking that is simple to a fault, sometimes (I have received the “that’s not even a recipe!” emails to prove it), but that’s because…it’s what I cook. We seek to be good partners, moms, professionals, and feminists and still make ourselves, Betty Friedan, and our mothers-in-law happy—-and oh, also to eat dinner. I’m not saying these things are at odds, but the discussion around it seems to resonate a lot with people, and I worry that there aren’t enough of us talking about it realistically. I would like to keep talking about it.
At the end of the day, I like to eat good food. Making it is work, no matter what the 20-minute-meal! headlines in your supermarket checkout line tell you. The empowerment and fulfillment of being able to cook something enjoyable for yourself, feed other people, and rise a little bit above just putting calories into your mouth for mere survival, is a type of connection (art?!) that has sustained me over the past five years.
I recently found a forgotten note that my childhood friend Meghan sent to me right after my mom died, before I moved back to the East Coast, before I started writing about cooking. “I remember a sleepover at your house for your 13th birthday,” she wrote. “Your mom cooked us eggs from the chickens for breakfast in the morning. She was so joyful.”
I gather up these bright bits of information like a magpie. I collect them, impatient to piece them together in a meaningful way, figuring it out one small step at a time.