How Cooking Reminds You Who You Are

How cooking reminds you who you are is an excerpt from Jessica Fechtor’s bestselling memoir, Stir, and the lesson that so much of who we are is defined by our relationship with food and sharing it with others.

We all know what it’s like to not feel like ourselves. This can happen for any number of reasons. Yet what tends to bring us back is, in a sense, very singular. In her bestselling memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, author Jessica Fechtor describes how she was in her 20s, recently married, and pursuing studies in grad school when an aneurism during a run sidelined her life—and her sense of self.  Her contemplation of what helped bring her back, both to herself and her loved ones, curiously and yet not surprisingly had everything to do with cooking. Food, as she goes on to explain in the following excerpt, is an expression of what we like on a very simple, fundamental level.  Her ponderings are a poignant reminder of “how food connects us to ourselves, our lives, and each other.” There’s something for each of us here.—Renee Schettler

Illness takes away plenty of big things. You can’t work; you can’t play. Worst of all, though, is the way it robs you of your everyday. That’s true whether you’re sick for three months or three days. If you’ve ever had a shower after a fever breaks, a first bite of solid food, traded your bathrobe for your favorite sweater, then you’ve felt it, too. Getting well means finding your everyday. I found mine in the kitchen.

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In the years before I got sick, I spent a lot of time in there. Kitchen business is physical. That was important to me during my first, healthy years of graduate school. After swimming around and around in my brain all day long, looping through the library after each paragraph written or chapter read so that I could remember what my legs were for, I wanted nothing more than to rub butter into flour, to feel the mild burn in my wrists and dough between my fingertips. I brought cakes to seminars, soups to neighbors, and mailed biscotti to faraway friends. I talked about food with anyone who would listen. I wrote about it, too: in the margins of my research notebooks, the pages of my journal, and summertime missives sent from study programs abroad.

Food has powers. It picks us up from our lonely corners and sits us back down, together. It pulls us out of ourselves, to the kitchen, to the table, to the diner down the block. At the same time, it draws us inward. Food is the keeper of our memories, connecting us with our pasts and with our people. A parsnip, for me, is Friday nights. It’s a soup pot simmering with a chicken inside, silk curtains, and my grandmother smelling brothy, salted, and sweet.

But there’s also something simpler going on, I think, namely that it feels so good to eat. Because we’re hungry, yes, but also because food allows us, in some small way, to act out who we are. My aunt puts cream in her ginger ale. I put peanut butter on a spoon. And cottage cheese on baked potatoes, and milk in tea, and yogurt on top of granola, not the other way around. My brother has a recipe: “Mustard. Bread. Mustard sandwich.” Eli comes from a family that puts ketchup on pasta and fries French toast in oil. He cuts off the crusts and saves them for last and eats them like bread sticks, with jam.

Food—like art, like music—brings people together, it’s true. It begins, though, with a private experience, a single person stirred, moved, and wanting company in that altered state. So we say, “You have to taste this.” We say, “Please, take a bite.”

It is a pleasure not only to taste, but to have taste, to feel our preferences exert themselves. It feels good to know what we like, because that’s how we know who we are.

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Comments

  1. Beautiful writing. After my own health challenges, it was like pulling a warm blanket over my shoulders to read someone’s thoughts who “gets it”. Thank you—

  2. What a wonderful reminder of the power of food, beyond just its nutritional value. And how timely given the state of our reality. I suspect that pandemic cooking will further reinforce the concept of self expression in the kitchen. Perhaps looking back at this time, we will find some tiny silver lining.

    1. Thanks, Patricia. I couldn’t agree more. And what a lovely silver lining that would be!

  3. This is such a beautiful essay. I instantly felt the comfort and joy of childhood memories and my
    Mother in the kitchen making our favorite meals.

  4. Come to think about it, a lot of how I function is in the way that I cook. I have this perfectionist mindset where I have to ensure things are going well, and will always look to see how the dish can be improved next time. It additionally is the way I unwind at the end of the day. Even in a hard time not being able to find food, the kitchen is the real Fortress of Solitude.

    Plus, I cook a bit of anything. I am an adventurous eater myself, and always keep an eye out for inspiration. Like anybody, I do have the specialties that I can fall back on; but I like to test myself and expand my horizons.

    It does bring out something in people. One of the reasons YouTube is the best thing ever is the cooking channels, both big and small. It is just as much about the recipes in front of you as it is the cook.

    1. Thanks, Mikey. It sounds like you truly love cooking, and that it is a big part of who you are.

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