I was in an abusive relationship, and cooking saved my life.
Sometimes I feel like I have a lived a hundred different lives and that I have found some impossibly clever way to tuck them all up inside of myself, revealing them only in the most deliberate of fashions. Like a wooden matryoshka doll stuffed full of smaller and less-full people, I sometimes seem to unfold.
Which brings me to this story. This story I have been trying to write down for years now. This story that I am just now accepting as a part of my life, as something that happened in it and to me. It’s the story of how cooking saved me.
I have always been an eater, and a cake batter dreamer. As a child, I poured over the pages of my mother’s taped-together Joy Of Cooking. In middle school was when I cooked my first perfect crepe — so thin and lissome, so encouraging. It was then that I was sold on the idea of being there — there in the kitchen. But I still was not quite.
In college, I bought yogurts from the grocery store and ate them for dinner. And I went through a vibrant Kraft macaroni and cheese phase, as I suppose all 20-year-olds are wont to do. The kitchen was a place I would go to feed myself, but not a place I would go to provide for myself — not in any real way, that is. But that changed.
That changed because, when I was 23 years old, I got married. This is something a lot of people don’t know about me — my friends, my co-workers, the people I live with. It’s a big secret that I’ve kept and carried around with me, pretending that it never happened at all. I aimed to delete it from myself; to change the story. But, years later, I am at last coming to terms with the fact that it did happen. It happened to me.
The first weekend of my married life was the weekend I knew everything was wrong. I knew because he told me so. He told me and he showed me in every single way that was available to him. Because if there’s one concise way in which I could describe to you the person I married, it would be this: He had a temper. And from the very beginning, I had this overwhelming feeling — this certainty – that what I was was not a wife, not a spouse, not a partner. I was a legally married person. And I was in trouble.
Because he would not let me be his wife, I chose instead to perform the role of wife. I saw couples around me — real couples — getting engaged, hedging vows, sailing off into the domestic sunset together, and I knew I would never access that with him. And I was ashamed. I was ashamed of what he did to us, and I was ashamed that I had allowed it to happen at all.
So I was a wife in the best way that I knew how to be one. I was a June Cleaver wife — a wife in the most concise sense of the word. And I painted myself in broad brushstrokes. I smiled. I talked of our future. And I fed him.
It started with a chicken salad sandwich, which swelled into beef bourguignons and chicken piccatas. I baked muffins, toasted granolas, and mulled cheap bottles of red wine on the stove top. I fed him my disappointment, my disavowal, my frustration. I killed him with kindness because it was the only way to keep those things from killing me. Because there is something that happens to you when you trust a person and they puncture that trust. And that something happened. It was profound; it was clean cut; it felt like drowning. And for a very long time I could not breathe.
My project in domestic restoration, which had started with that single batch of homemade chicken salad, quickly grew. And its mission shifted. I cooked not to please him — though the food did do that. No, I cooked to gain ground, claim territory. I cooked to manifest destiny. I cooked because I didn’t have a home, and I needed one.
It was a game that he didn’t know we were playing. I was rolling die and strategically helming my game piece around the unfolded board. I was purchasing property. A pot of rice bought me Pennsylvania Avenue. For three boiled eggs, Park Place was mine. The kitchen was a frontier, and I was Little House on the Prairie. I was Oregon Trail. I forded the river; I caulked the wagon to float. I survived. I got by. And he had no idea.