On food & feeling: a culinary excavation

What morphs the act of cooking from merely a required step for nourishment to one of care, of passion, or responsibility? Is it the specificity with which ingredients are chosen, perhaps the freshness of sharp scallions, or the crunch of young sugar snap peas? Maybe it’s time - the slow meld of a stew in a lovingly stained dutch oven, the soft gurgling of collards braising in coconut milk. More likely, I think, it is intention that is at the heart of crafting a meal designed to speak on your behalf, to unriddle stories hidden in the taste buds, to light up a face. Just as anything can be a gift when wrapped thoughtfully, any meal can be an offering if you wish it to be.

But do you wish it to be?

The first thing I remember cooking for myself was mac & cheese. That classic blue box, the packet of packaged dairy within a veritable miracle of science or some higher power to my young mind. I had watched my father make it time and time again, but not how the box traditionally dictated - he would cook the pasta, but then, while the hot elbows sat draining in the colander, would add a thick slab of butter to the pan to melt, scraping it off the side of the knife with the side of the pan. It would slide down and begin to bubble, and the fragrance of warming fat was what signaled the imminent arrival of the meal, and usually would draw me to attention from whatever else I was preoccupied with. Macaroni was returned to be thoroughly greased before the milk was poured in, the amount determined solely by instinct or insight, another element of apparent prodigy to me, and tempered slightly before the neon orange powder was finally and unceremoniously dumped in and the whole thing was stirred together to piping hot perfection.

Mac and cheese would become my go-to meal throughout the years, from pre-teen throughout college, with endless variations as I learned about and explored new cuisines, often through the warm glow of the Food Network. First simple aromatics like garlic, or rosemary, or sage, would be fried softly in the melting butter to add depth and herbaceousness. Soon, more adventurous (and admittedly kind of weird and gross in retrospect) combinations appeared like scallions and sesame oil, or soy and chilis, and the nearly scientific study of how endless varieties of fresh cheeses melted and melded with it’s packaged brethren. Over time, the base evolved from the Americana comfort of Kraft macaroni to the more evolved, new age Annie’s shells with white cheddar, a base somehow more subtle yet more flavorful at the same time. I learned, too, how to make a proper roux, build a bechamel flecked with seasoning, and the right type and proportion of cheddar to achieve a homemade impersonation of the boxed ideal. That doesn’t stop me from going back to the now ubiquitous purple box of Annie’s more often than not; an appreciation of the simplicity, regularity, and replicability imparted by likely years of research and study by chefs and food scientists.

While there were many things that changed, as they naturally do, over the course of my five year relationship with my ex-boyfriend, a few things stayed constant: our sexual positions, our love of Harry Potter, which side of the bed we slept on...but looking back now the thing that strikes me as being most consistent was that I was the cook. Cooking was something I felt good at, something I could materially do to reduce the burden and stress on my boyfriend who worked a demanding job for far too little pay and faced structural inequities that I could never fully comprehend (being orphaned, being undocumented, being latino to name a few). Making dinner was a key part of the routine that defined the contours of our time together over the years - it was a rhythm that I found comfort in, a moment where we were bound together by the sheer shared experience of fueling our bodies. This was heightened, I think, by starting our relationship over the internet and being long distance for the first two years or so; our first interactions weren’t over pizza and a movie, but over Skype. During those years apart, there’d be many nights of ordering delivery for each other from afar, an attempt to provide some comfort and care via the power of the internet.

Cooking for the two of us was also a constant struggle, an internal battle that went beyond normal meal planning. I went pescetarian shortly after we started dating; he was an avid omnivore, but was also trying to change his eating habits after leaving college with a different body than the swimmer’s build he went into it with. I was still learning how to cut meat out of the meals I cooked, a difficult challenge when all of the meals I grew up eating were built around animals as the main source of volume and protein. My default was making carb heavy dishes - think endless pasta bakes - that invariable would end in frustration at a lack of appreciation (from him) and a lack of understanding of the issue (from me). When I found something we both liked, I clung to it for dear life: “fake” chicken parmesan with Morningstar patties that so effortlessly mimic a breaded, fried breast; sushi bowls with seared tuna, doing my best to recreate the vinegary, sticky rice we knew and loved; , broiled salmon, a mustard based sauce adding some punch, though my attempts to keep the salmon from overcooking always seeming to fall short; and maybe our favorite, shrimp scampi, and guilty, carby pleasure amped up with extravagant amounts of garlic and lemon, an excuse to splurge on a bottle of wine. Weekend mornings were for egg and cheeses, not only in their typical New York form on a hard roll, but often on a tortilla, a slight ode to his heritage and the cuisine of San Diego he grew up on. There is nothing quite like the combination of eggs and American cheese, no matter what the vehicle it is contained in, in our case often doused in a squiggle of sriracha for a shock of heat amongst the savory, creamy filling.  

There were moments when we did cook together, and I savored those the most. It relieved some of the pressure of sustaining us both, and elevated the act of cooking something beyond the quotidian need to put food on the table. For a time we dove head first into meal prepping, throwing caution to all advice about slowly changing habits and burning ourselves out spending hours on Sunday making breakfast burritos to freeze with different cheeses and veggies, and maybe chorizo for his; or overnight oats by the jar full, almond milk used up by the gallon, fruits dotting the top;  or a giant tub of chana masala or bean chili, spices wafting through the apartment, the rice cooker filled to the brim with basmati or Carolina to keep up.

Our last Valentine's day together felt as close to a perfect day as we had ever spent together. The slow and sensual pleasure of morning sex, no rush to start or finish, while at the same time relieving a sense of responsibility for the rest of the day of having to have incredible Valentine’s day lovemaking. Afterwards, we spent the rest of the day making an extravagant and indulgent set of dishes. Our brunch was chilaquiles, done “right” - the sauce made from the reconstituted and pureed Chiles California we had just bought from a Tijuana market a month before, during my first and much belated trip to meet his family. He had often wanted to make this dish, but would not compromise on any other Chile than the ones he grew up on, and we had previously scoured high and low throughout Jackson Heights to no avail - and had therefore saved lots of space in our luggage to bring our treasure home. The tortillas we fried fresh ourselves, crisp and salty, worth the price of yelps and shrieks as they hit the hot oil. That night, a massive seafood paella, inspired by a spice packet gifted from friends who had just returned from Spain, the aquatic accents acquired in three different markets to find the perfect combination of fresh octopus, shrimp, and scallops. The result was a heavenly bounty of Arborio rice, the cast iron pan - one my father used to use, one I still use today - doing it’s best to imitate the dishes namesake by providing the necessary layer of crusted, slightly burnt grains, a texture so sublime it’s transcended any culture that knows the value of rice. And last, but definitely not least, a decadent chocolate bread pudding about five times larger than it needed to be, but worth every indulgent calorie, the rich combination of challah and dark chocolate making a magical end to our edible escapade. It was the best Valentine’s we had ever had, I thought - no capitalistic rituals like flowers or cards or chocolates, just a day together enjoying each other’s company and building flavors together the way I thought we still might build our life together, despite the uneven terrain we had traversed, and the messy baggage that had been both lost and found along the way.

Less than a month later we were broken up, this time for good, the unimaginable made real. That February day, those meals, are the lasting, phantom image in my head of the culinary arc that undergirded our relationship; I am sure there were other meals we ate in the interim, nights of take out sushi, drinks with friends in the few weeks between, but those have washed away with the sprint of time and the cleansing that healing brings. It took me more than a year after our relationship ended to cook myself a meal again. Being in the kitchen was too loaded, emotionally. Starting graduate school was a convenient excuse to subsist solely on delivery and Amy’s frozen meals, but that wasn’t quite the whole story.  It wasn’t that I had suddenly forgotten, through trauma and heartbreak, how to dice vegetables, or fry tofu, or cook an egg, nor even that I had moved into an apartment with an even smaller and unwelcoming kitchen. It was the thought of cooking for myself and myself alone that was altogether unbearable. I didn’t think I deserved to spend that type of care or time or energy on myself - it was only worth it when it was for another person.

The first thing I cooked for myself after all that time? Mac and cheese, from a purple Annie’s box.

It has taken some time for me to see that my sacred attachment to the power of a meal to communicate intimacy, to keep bonds tethered, came very much from my family and my experience growing up. My parents, especially my mother, insisted on having family dinner every night. In their case, my dad was the cook - my mom was legendary for scaring away friends with her rendition of beef stroganoff (overcooked meat in a broken, sad sauce), or making a turkey surprise that could have been the centerpiece of an SNL sketch. My dad would come home from work, at varying levels of lateness depending inversely on how good global financial markets were, and get right to work on dinner. He had the sort of skill in the kitchen that appeared to be utter wizardry to me a child, to create something delicious and sustaining out of the seemingly nothing we had in the fridge - and without a recipe! Especially in the early years, before the kitchen was renovated, he managed this mystifying cookery all in a suffocating hallway that was never designed with a family of six in mind. .

His cooking wasn’t fancy, but it had a cadence in a way that I found comforting. Some things were constant throughout the years, food that is maybe more American than folks would expect for a family in Manhattan, a reflection of his Midwest upbringing perhaps: hamburgers, chili, pot roast, steak, spaghetti with meat sauce. There were also rotating specials that would come and go throughout the years, spurred by a new episode of Good Eats, or a gifted cookbook or kitchen gadget: stir fry, Osso Buco, Cornish game hens. I could tell he would be excited to experiment, and ecstatic when something he was unfamiliar with turned out deliciously.

It is telling that my memories of the food itself are the most salient of those dinners. The rest of the routine was more of an endurance test than anything. There was the cursory “how was your day?”, more than often quickly answered by each child with a round of “fine” before my mother would jump into a story from her day in the Bronx Supreme Court. Our family was her audience, and you were expected to respond and interact or face the sharp flash of anger and guilt if you were deemed not invested enough in what was being shared (“You could say, ‘That’s nice mom’, you know”). Thus the rhythm was set. My father, the introvert, who spoke rarely of anything involving his job. My sister and I, for most the years I remember, at different points in teenage sullenness and unwillingness to open ourselves up to parents who certainly Wouldn’t Understand. One of us would set the table; another would clear it; my mother would do this dishes. There was always, always a salad - lettuce, cucumber, tomato; the only evolution moving from iceberg to romaine sometime in the early 2000s, maybe a surprise bell pepper every now and then. For a while, there was always wine or beer for my parents; after my mother went sober, non-alcoholic versions took their place.

I could tell you a story of any dinner from my childhood and it would look indifferent from essentially any other evening. I could tell you all the things that happened that had no effect on the dinner time routine, such as the day I started psychotherapy, or the day in high school where my old friends formally indicated that I was no longer a part of their group, or even the day I first came out to one of my best friends. The dinner table was not actually a place for hardship, or conflict, or growth - it was a place where we played family, I felt, just to say that we were the type of family that always ate dinner together in an age where that American tradition was fraying at the seams. I resented the forced and faked intimacy, and yet I sought to immediately recreate that dynamic the moment I could - a cycle I wish I had seen earlier, if only to spare myself and my boyfriend from the same, unfulfilled state.

So maybe it’s too simple to say that intention alone can change the tone or purpose of a meal. What it’s really about is a shared intent, a commitment to that intent by those around the table.

Though I started cooking again after my breakup, it was only recently that I was able to find a new sense of joy in it. This past summer was my first time receiving a farm-share; each week, the excitement and anticipation of the email that would unveil the bounty to come, my version of a cultivated Christmas eve - followed by the somewhat stressful thrill of planning a week’s meals around whatever the farmers happened to pull that week. This experience pushed me out of my comfort zone with the vegetables I was using, and the dishes I was making to incorporate them into my eating. Sometimes it was as easy as making a giant salad of the freshest, peppery mustard greens with unbelievably ripe cherry tomatoes, juicy cucumbers, maybe some peppers - the same formula from those family dinners of old, but this time packed with a punch of flavor so strong that it changed the equation entirely. The process also opened me up to share meals with people again, if only out of the necessity of using pounds and pounds of greens or fennel or radishes before they spoiled. I felt proud, again, of the dishes I prepared and my ability to bring joy to myself and others via fresh, flavorful food.

Even more recently than that I’ve learned to tune into my body and my cravings even more than ever before. My instinct in any situation of discomfort or problem to solve is to focus on thinking my way out of it. Driven by a combination of nature, nurture, and trauma, intellectualizing and compartmentalizing things into bite size portions as a way to get through them is second nature me. Through years of therapy, I’ve been working on feeling my way through things instead - finding another way to be still and avoid searching for answers, but merely sitting with the emotions of any given situation. This takes a certain amount of space, time, and patience to accomplish - and the same holds true when I feel an urge to cook or eat something but can’t quite figure out what exactly is on the tip of tongue. It’s work but it’s also indulgent: what will feed me in this moment, not just physically but emotionally? Melancholy and longing leads me towards lusciousness: a vegetarian take on the hearty French cassoulet, or a sinfully good mushroom gravy over sourdough stuffing. Joy brings me back to those comfort foods of my youth, but with my own spin - chili but focused on beans, with the depth of poblanos and mushrooms; pasta, now with a silky butternut squash and sage sauce, jeweled with chunks of fontina and crusted with Panko. Each feeling opens up a potential flavor profile to explore, to enhance and develop as I sit with the sensation of prioritization my own needs.

I’ve been inspired by seeing how much food inspires people around the world, through shows like Salt Fat Acid Heat, or even the tried and true Top Chef, and especially the Mashama Bailey and Asma Khan episodes of Chef’s Table. To see folks - especially women of color - grapple with the combination of the personal and the historical, the balance of being seasoned and seasoning...it reminds me that food holds many wonders, each dish a summation of choices that led you and your ingredients to that very moment when the burner is lit, or the knife withdrawn from his sheath, or the first flash of onions and garlic in the pan. Food is both personal and political, and can be your own liberation at times. I sense the deep connections these chef’s have with their food and it energizes me to learn more techniques, more cultures, more ways of feeling my way through food.

A few months ago, I cooked a meal for somebody for the first time. Our connection had been sparked by chance, and been sustained by a combination of luck and flashes of energetic honesty. The meal was supposed to be a gift, in thanks of being housed on another visit to his city - but deeper down it was much more than that to me. I wanted so badly for the meal to express my gratitude for being in his life during a tumultuous period, for the space we’d made to spend time again, for him to open up even just a little to me during a time when I needed the safety of a space to figure out what I wanted and needed from my intimate relationships. I chose something familiar but adventurous, a pasta dish amped up and worthy of the occasion. It wasn’t until I was mid-cooking did he share that he had never had a meal cooked for him before, not like this, and I was momentarily struck motionless. I felt that old internal pressure surface to the top as I realized that this was a new bridge I was of intimacy I was building for him to cross, without either of us realizing it. Suddenly it was imperative that the shrimp be perfectly cooked, that the sauce be the exact coat-the-back-of-the-spoon consistency I was looking for. While trying to stay focused on the cookery I was also struck with questions that could not be ignored: how could the act of meal making and giving, something I had done for so long as the only template I knew, be completely unknown to him? How could that be - how did he know if someone cared for them? Maybe I was making too big of a deal out if it - what if nobody else in the world thought about making meals the way I do? These questions were answerable, unspeakable in the moment - but I was even more determined to finish the meal to perfection, to make a lasting impression knowing in particular that the situation we had found ourselves in was rapidly changing. This could be the last opportunity to share an important part of myself before the tectonics settled.

I cooked a meal that was everything I wanted it to be. Al dente pasta the likes of which I rarely achieve; a rich parmesan and champagne laced Alfredo sauce that was rich without being cloying; green beans kept snappy with the tang of garlic added right at the final moment; even some crisped prosciutto for his garnish, a faint memory or homage to my previous endeavors in finding meals to satisfy myself and a meat eater at the same time. We drank the rest of champagne, ate far too much for our own good, and watched Netflix. And that was it - no blinding revelation, no moment of wonder, no gourmet inspired sex. Don’t get me wrong, we  definitely enjoyed the evening together and yet it was ultimately uneventful in the grand scheme of things. I realized I had made the mistake of not naming my hopes and fears for that meal, and for our connection by extension. My own history had elevated the importance of this singular, dramatic event. Looking back, there was no moment where I explicitly asked what it might mean to him to be served a meal like this, or said what it meant to me to be cooking it. A shared intention was nowhere to be found, and so I was left feeling culinarily accomplished yet emotionally disjointed.

With cooking, there is always another chance, a lesson to be learned and then implemented the next time around. Overcooked the fish? Keep a closer eye on it and learn how to tell, just by pressing on the flesh, whether it is ready or not. Messed up your dice? Sharpen your knives and take your time on future onions. Life too comes with chances, but often not quite as frequent nor as distinct - you can’t just toss a charred relationship in the trash like so many failed muffin attempts. The lesson with both, however, is that trying over and over is the only way to get better. Each attempt can have its own intention, it’s own spice that helps you learn something new about your palate, and about yourself. I’m still learning what it takes to cook how I want to cook, and to feel how I want to feel. But I believe I have more food, and more life, to offer - so I invite you to come find me in the kitchen some time, no matter your skill in either flavor or feeling.

Matthew Kastellec