How Roxane Gay Lured Me Back To Cooking


The mashed potatoes were lumpy, and because I used low fat milk, they were also too watery to be tasty, so I doomed the dish to the disposal. But the Mediterranean- style braised chicken, and the spaghetti in tomato sauce with basil and Parmesan cheese won applause.

 Actually, the only person judging these various recipes was I, in the midst once again of switching from dinners purchased at supermarket hot bars to home cooking. My most recent dive into healthier and cheaper menus was inspired not by a New Year's vow, but through the writings of author Roxane Gay. I had been reading her memoir, "Hunger: A Memoir of My Body,"and marinated in her praise of Food Network star, Ina Garten.

 That adoration pulled me from Gay's pages to online images of Garten's cookbook. But, I decided the recipes of the "Barefoot Contessa"were fancier than I favored, so I opted instead for "How to Cook Everything"by Mark Bittman.

 While waiting for Bittman's book to arrive -- I chose hardcover rather than eBook because I recalled the satisfaction of food-stained pages in cookbooks and index cards inherited from my mother -- I realized that Gay and I have several things in common. Despite being different ages, races, and sizes, Gay and I are feminists, tattoo wearers, and our weight has been a central ingredient in both our lives.

Like those splattered cards and pages that are my legacy, my mother's focus on my body size through childhood and adult life, is at the center of any discussion of food. And perhaps it was this mother-daughter mélange that originally drew me to Gay's memoir.

 My earliest visual of the battle to remove the pinchable roll of flesh that spilled over my waistband was visits to the Diet Doctor. Mother must've thought that melting that roll would improve her preteen daughter's options for a sweetheart. Although she herself resembled a 1940's pin-up, alas, her curves weren't enough to prevent her from a life behind a grocery store counterand a marriage to a man she never loved.

 The Diet Doctor, actually an amphetamine pusher, was followed by membership in Overeater's Anonymous, Weight Watchers, and bookshelves lined with the latest sure-fire secret of weight loss.

 When Weight Watchers came to Chicago in 1968, I was 30 years old, with two children ages 3 and 4-1/2. Although I had disproved Mom's theory and wedded a doctor, I couldn't negate messages in women's magazines that every pound over ideal was as odious as trash at curbside. 

 Over the course of 50 cycling years, I lost the pudge and at 4'9", 100 pounds, I'm holding steady. Like a climber at the summit of Mt. Everest, I proclaim I no longer diet, but if you were to observe me in restaurants or in my kitchen, you would witness a woman still obsessed with her weight. 

 At age 80, I daily tiptoe on the scale, weigh and measure my food, and if my iWatch declares I haven't met my goals, I will Move or Exercise more to appease this nagging device. Now, you may see my routines as healthy, and I guess on some level, it is. But how does this obsession differ from someone suffering from an eating disorder? If I never allow myself to munch more than half of the item I've selected from a menu, or if I refuse to go wild and use two tablespoons instead of one, am I not the poster crone for food aversion?

 Which brings us back to my new cookbook, mashed potatoes and pasta (a quarter of a cup for each), braised chicken (one thigh), and other dishes prepared from recipes.  While my advertised return to cooking -- healthier and cheaper -- are certainly true, there's an underlying recurring theme boiling over from this latest activity. 

 "How wonderful," a friend had said to me, when I announced my cuisine. "Don't you love cooking?"

 "Oh yes," I said, but to myself I thought, actually "no" I don't love cooking. I love writing, reading, watching TV, but I don't love cooking. Roxane Gay loves cooking, Ina Garten loves cooking, Mark Bittman loves cooking, my mother loved cooking, but I don't. So why am I pulling out pots and pans, introducing fresh parsley, sage, and garlic to my fridge, loading my dishwasher two times a day, and taking photos to send to my children? 

 This is my theory: it's time consuming, and engages my mind so it won't stew over everyday worries. And most importantly, it gives me something to write about, which is what I really, really relish.