Signs of Life
I am not one to notice signs. My friends and colleagues do; a feather on the ground points one towards making a major life decision, or a certain smell means a relative who’s passed is nearby. Me? There could be men from the airport tarmac in orange vests with DayGlo sticks pointing furiously in one direction and I’d probably go the other way. So, when March 13th rolled around, I’d not noticed that it was Friday the 13th, only that we were packing our blended family of eight adults and a baby into two cars and heading out of the city to a home in the country.
It would only be till May 15th, we said. It will be fun, we said, like a vacation.
And then the cooking started. The family vacation that was supposed to feel like a weekend reunion had morphed into an assignment—cook’s duty at the state penitentiary. Meals for eight, three times a day? I’m no mathematician but three times eight is multiplication I can manage. Less manageable is 168 meals a week and every night a virtual dinner party, one of my favorite events on a seasonal or monthly or even weekly basis. But daily? The blush quickly moved off the rose and onto the rosé.
Dinners for eight or ten or twelve never throw me; in fact, I theme them with relish (not actual relish, ever). I say YES to chilly winter challenges like scooped oranges filled with sweet potato puree or baked cream puffs in the shape of swans for a spring fling brunch (dress code: floral). That said, the theme for April 2020 quickly became Meltdown, and not the kind where one softens the butter and adds it to a double boiler with chocolate. This one was full-blown tears and wailing behind the door of the one and only room in the house still mine, the bedroom.
It used to be, I cook therefore I am. Instead it became, I cook therefore I am…tired.
Did I mention we were eight adults and a baby? And that three of the eight were young adult men who transformed one room into a gym and took pullup breaks every hour? Can you say…calorie intake?
And before I forget, let me note the list of dietary needs. Naturally, someone was gluten-free, another was dairy-free, and one was meatless. We had a family member who would eat fish but not salmon and another who liked shellfish but not shrimp. Don’t get me started on mushrooms and peas, craved by some, abhorred by others. Two weeks in, one of the young adult males announced that he’d be eating Quest Bars, and only Quest Bars, for a whole week. He was my favorite.
Here’s one thing I learned quickly: It’s okay to lie (unless food allergies are involved). “Of course there’s only almond milk in the sauce!” “You bet, everything is non-GMO.”
Forgive me, I joke. It’s not irreverence. Its sanity. As The Sous Therapist, helping people cope with life’s challenges through cooking, you’d think I would have quickly found the fast route to the mindfulness and metaphor that would sustain and nurture us all. But more, I began to rely on my sense of humor, an often-underrated therapeutic tool. The sheer quantity of the food and meals that I prepared and that were consumed, hot or cold, based on various remote work schedules and workouts and baby bath times and diets was funny in a Ripley’s believe it or not sort of way. I would especially need my sense of humor for the family meetings I created. And by created I do mean me writing SOS in silverware on the kitchen table and piping the Beatles’ song “Help” into every room in the house courtesy of Sonos. Overkill you say? By the time May 15th came and went we had teams and schedules for shopping, meal prep, and cleanup, and I could stop lamenting that if I was making chicken thighs 24 were needed, and begin to find the joy in the process of cooking, the sustenance of cooking, the feelings that determined what I needed to make and the thing that Buddha knew so long ago: “When you prepare your own food you give to the food and the food gives back.”
I got my cooking mojo back. And our family began to hum. There is something about mealtime, even staggered, even for eight people and a delicious baby every night for six months, that creates connection, but more, in these pandemic times, much-needed feelings of safety. Wildfires? Wiped out with a casserole of cauliflower rice. Terrorists? Treated with helpings of gluten free (truly) chocolate cake. Coronavirus? Calmed with four racks of peach and bourbon-basted baby back ribs. I once again cooked purposefully, using the metaphors I use clinically but this time for myself and my crew—sifting through what’s working, simmering instead of coming to a rolling boil, letting it rest.
And the cook who didn’t notice signs began to evolve. I saw two trees in the backyard that I was sure were dancing with each other the way my parents used to, and heard a resident sparrow’s chirping as a call to venture out into the day for much-needed sunlight (that sparrow had my back), and named the two praying mantises who came to rest on the kitchen window each day as if they were two new family members: Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Green.
I’m grateful for the things that get me through tough times. Laughter is right up there, family, too, of course. And always, the aromas, memories and messages in the preparation and sharing of meals. You give to the food and it gives back. You give to the food and the food gives back warmth, safety, hope, and life.
Copyright ©2020 Debra Borden
Debra Borden is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in NY and NJ and the author of two novels, Lucky Me and A Little Bit Married as well as the self-help book, Cook Your Marriage Happy. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times and Women’s Health Magazine. A pioneer in the field of cooking therapy, Debra is thrilled and grateful to be part of the communities of mental health professionals, writers, and foodies.