After almost ten years of marriage to a man who can throw ingredients together and make a meal, who can add a dash of something to razz it up, who can taste a thing and duplicate it near enough—you know the type—I decided he shouldn’t be burdened with every single one of our home-cooked meals and that I could learn how to cook at least one really good dish. Five years later, I haven’t yet, but I’m getting there.
The meals I know how to make are rated as: Never Again, We Didn’t Hate It, Decent, A Little More Decent, and This One Is Really Okay. My instinct is to add mustard to something if it’s boring and we’ve four jars of thyme because I keep forgetting which seasoning we are actually out of when I go to the store. But I attempt to cook anyway and usually I get three-fourths of the way through the recipe before that long pathetic naggy wife-cry of my husband’s name (the one I swore I wouldn’t develop when we first married) escapes me and he returns to the kitchen to bring it all together.
I’ve decided cooking is not just following instructions. It’s timing and knowing a little something about texture, heat, and balance. It’s not magic. I have to remind myself of this often. It’s not magic. I’ve learned to compensate in some of these areas by doubling the prep time expected, by keeping the heat a smidge lower than I want it to be, and by keeping my phone nearby to text my best friend (yeah, a best friend wondercook too) and to Google. I still Google how to boil eggs.
Every few days I put on a load of armor, pray to my gods—not for victory, but for glory in my battle death—and head into the kitchen to face a fear. The fear of what I’m not sure yet, even after all this time.
I used to cook a few things when I was a teenager: mac-n-cheese, French toast, and boxed desserts. And I cooked the hell out of them. My parents were often gone for long stretches of time at the nearest casino and I had three young siblings and a grandmother to feed. When I didn’t have a blank check for pizza, I’d make the cheesy noodles. And let me tell you, to an 8, 7, and 5-year-old and to an ailing non-English speaking grandmother, I was the champion of mac-n-cheese. The secret is to use less butter, melt the butter on the noodles in the pot after draining, and mix the cheese powder with the milk before you put it on the noodles. This is now one of two This One Is Really Okay meals I make.
Back then, the kids would cheer. No, really. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to have children cheer for your efforts at keeping them alive and, if not happy, then at least mildly satisfied. This after all the huffs about chores and all the tears about who took or did what to whom. They weren’t nasty really, just kids. And the three worked well together on projects. They made landscapes and sets and all the characters from Disney out of construction paper. They’d set to work for hours and the construction paper and tape usage was astronomical. But they could transform any room into a workshop and would settle into their tasks of dream-made-real with steady hands and a reverent hive-mind. And the end finale—the length of the playroom with scattered bits of construction paper and so very many empty tape dispensers along the edges like a border of fluttery un-made imaginings—was a 3-D work of art. They’d touch it up for a few days until the paper softened. Until parts collapsed or the revision of one area turned into upheaval and one of them would snap. Tear the whole thing down. My mom and dad usually returned by the time the work was done and my mom would salvage some pirates, save a tree, or corral the animals and tuck them away in the way that my mom has tucked everything away in her house until it’s just a house of tucking things away.
When my parents came home, there was much rejoicing. They are fun people who like to laugh and love and they loved us. The pattern I worked to establish for chore duties and bed and bathtimes were blown to bits, but I didn’t mind because I too was just a kid (though I didn’t know it then) and happy to have their attention. And mom made lasagna and meatloaf and pork chops and her fry bread that brought us to our knees. Aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, my dad only cooked twice a year: ham-fried rice in Spring and corn on the cob in Fall. But he’d take us out to eat plenty—burgers and tacos and fried chicken. And lots of ice cream.
My husband makes lemon chicken piccata, saffron stir-fry, and a chicken cheese and broccoli casserole that always includes a batch of chicken cheese and broccoli soup somehow. Saag soup too and more wonders of cream-based dishes. For several glorious weeks, he tried to create the steak sandwich of his dreams and I was surrounded by warm bread loaves, baguettes, and the smell of sautéed mushrooms, various cheeses, and different cuts of steak. Biscuits and sausage gravy. Pulled-pork smothered burrito. Things of comfort with a bit of spice or bite of pepper. And he knows what lentils are and how to cut an onion and when to avoid all the fancy mustards I keep buying. He’s learned it from his mom, who rarely uses a pre-made mix or recipes other than those shared among her family and friends. My best friend loves cooking too and makes it all and when I visit her, I get to choose the meals ahead of time. For a long time, I didn’t know enough to know how to find the meals to ask her to make. She makes a Greek pasta with burned butter, whole chicken thighs, cinnamon red sauce, and mizithra cheese she learned from a friend’s Greek/Italian-American mother who never used a recipe. She makes from scratch fried spring rolls with a dipping sauce and chicken sate and spicy peanut sauce. Flank steak with corn salsa. Eggs benedict. And the alfredo that made me realize I had never really had alfredo and did indeed love it. She watches the cooking shows and she reads the recipes and she and her sisters bury their ideas within one another until their family cookbook is a 150-page thing in my kitchen. And when they open that book, it isn’t just for the simple act of taking in information. They read it like tarot. She, my mil, and my husband have vision. A future-sight that pulls together the timing, texture, heat, and balance of it all before they step foot in the kitchen.
When I was sixteen, I knew my mac-n-cheese so well that I never stepped out of myself to ask what a teenager was doing cooking for four dependent people. I didn’t know enough to think of serving a vegetable. Or to look at the pantry and sigh when only boxed meals stared back at me—that comforting sequence of bright blue and no surprises. Or to even ask what a bit of mustard would do to the dish. I didn’t know anything but this: when I would call for dinner and the kids would come from the playroom, sweaty and still holding a construction paper pair of legs or bits of a car or the ears and tail of a fox, their bodies would plop into their chairs while they remained absorbed in their latest colored paper world-to-be. And maybe I’d still be trying to inch my grandmother from her bedroom to her favorite chair in front of the TV. But soon the cheering would happen. Yum! Hooray! Cheesy Noodles! The smiling and the food filling something empty inside them that they didn’t know how to name. Warm tummies and the second servings and their little eyes swishy with satisfaction. It was like magic. And when I broke it to them that it was now time for baths and bed, they’d only half object, hug me on their way out of the kitchen, and trot through their bedtime routine until I could stand in the quiet midnight house with tomorrow ripening and waiting. I’d lean in their doorway, that precious alone time all teenagers crave just beginning, and I’d listen for any signs of sadness or stillness in their lungs.
Natanya Ann Pulley is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota and the Fiction Editor at South Dakota Review. She has a PhD in Fiction Writing from the University of Utah. Natanya’s publications include The Butter, The Collagist, The Florida Review: Native Issue, Drunken Boat, AS/US journal for indigenous women, and McSweeney’s Open Letters. Additional reading and links can be found on her website.