Put vanilla in everything. Seriously. Or a little bourbon. Or wine. In curry and masala, the sweetness balances and deepens the spice. In shepherd’s pie, which I make with ground beef and Guinness stout, the vanilla adds a hint of richness that seems to draw out the natural, syrupy flavor of the carrots and corn. A friend of mine swears by a dash of vanilla in mac and cheese. 

Vanilla and cinnamon are the foundational flavors of baking cookies—our formative kitchen memory. One year, when my aunt and I made gingerbread, I wanted to taste everything: the flavorless sizzle of baking soda on my tongue, the chalky fluff of flour, the surprising tang of molasses, and the strange, pungent strength of vanilla that makes its smell a liar. I stood on a wobbling pine stool, licking spoons, wondering what alchemy transformed these disgusting things into deliciousness.

Cooking is an emergent phenomenon. The whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts. There is some magic in the combination. We are flirting with that mysterious more when we draw the apron strings across our hips. Will that strange, multiplying power ease loneliness, remedy what it’s lacking?  

Looking for the “more” is why I cook when I don’t have time. Eight or nine o’clock on a Thursday will find me taking out a long day’s frustration on four or five cloves of garlic smashed ruthlessly under the flat of my big knife. By the way, use your big knife, the scary, cleaver-like one. When I had braces in elementary school, and everything had to be cut up small, I learned to use little knives that fit in my hand, which I could control.

The big knife is always the sharpest in a set; I’ve observed this in other houses. It’s cliche, but the things we are afraid of stay sharp. I can manage the big knife. 

I don’t particularly like cooking for just myself. I do it when I must. I cooked quite a bit when Ferdinand, my car, decided to be flaky about starting these last few cold weeks. Apprehensive of getting stranded in a cold Meijer parking lot, I used what I had in the cupboards. I buy a few cans of beans, tomatoes, and coconut milk almost every grocery trip, in case I get snowed in. This is primordial, original, foundational food. I wonder if every culture has a version of beans and spicy sauce? Isn’t that the anthropological principle of universalism? On the cold nights when the pantry runs low, humans simmer beans in spices and find solace in that. And I find comfort, too, in the knowledge that I am not alone in space, time, and experience. 

I cook when I use up my easy food—carrots and hummus, cereal, PB&J, simple salads. sustenance requiring minimal prep. Then, I race against time to use up my ambitious produce purchases before they go bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do with acorn squash, but it looks so cute, splashed orange and green. I’m never going to attempt my mom’s eggplant parmesan, but I‘ll buy an eggplant for ratatouille sometimes. It makes me laugh to think about my family, sitting in Maggiano’s Italian Restaurant in Denver, eating the best eggplant parmesan in the world, when my mom asks, “But it’s not better than mine, right?” It was. It’s the best. And I’ve eaten eggplant in Italy.  

“No, yours is the best, Mom,” we swore. 

Challenge yourself in the produce aisle. Make something adults make. Swish the memories as if you are a memory sommelier. Call it the best yet.

It’s been a year of being touch-starved and love-thirsty. I get it: why Adam, who knew better and knew real loneliness, might eat sin rather than be righteously alone, and why Esau and Jacob’s weird story makes soup and the blessing of belonging strangely interchangeable. This is not the message of these stories, but we humans are hungry, lonely creatures. Communion is a meal, and we are sustained by connection as much as bread. 

So, take care. Garlic, turmeric, ginger, citrus, and chicken broth. Toss some ramen in, too. It’s good for what ails you. Technically, garlic is for your immune system, turmeric eases inflammation (a principal source of pain), ginger is for digestion, chicken broth is miraculous. More important than the technical healing properties, though, is this ritual of health. This is not of guilt-beaten adherence to wheatgrass smoothies or whatever keto is (though maybe those things have merit). This is the pronouncement of creation: it is good, this body. It is good to care just for this body. It is good to do things that are only useful to this body. Even if the time it takes to chop and stir does not contribute to your professional projects and the numerous bodies of the wider world, acknowledge this body. It is good.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    11/10 would recommend your masala recipe, and cooking in community – even if ‘community’ is just a video call these days.

    Reply
    • Emily J Stroble

      Thank you, Lillie! But which masala recipe do you mean? Is it the chickpea-sweet-potato one? Or the one we made with the mysterious red pepper powder of indeterminate origin and a burn like the fire of a thousand suns? Because I think I might still have some of the cauterizing masala in my freezer and I am ready to admit that my constitution is too delicate for that particular dish. Which brings to mind one more tip: if you are going to measure spices with your heart and substitute willy-nilly as I do, do not do it with a red powder at the back of the cupboard in a plastic baggie marked “hot” in ragged sharpie.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Your writing here is as delicious and worth savoring as the recipes you describe. Tha k you for this careful crafted ode to food and tending to our tastes and bodies.

    Also, I bought a Joseph Joseph steel garlic rocker and my fingers, the frequent victims of my large-knifed garlic chopping, have thanked me. It quicken the job wonderfully.

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    Being one who is lackluster in his preparation and consumption of food it is not surprising how lacking my thoughts of food are after reading this piece. The connections you make, the magic within the words, the stirring imagery–all of it makes me seek the “more.”

    Reply

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