My parents split when I was young; I don’t really remember the time they were together. My mom and dad’s new partners, both kind, gentle, generous men, brought their own culinary flair to the family; respectively, pot roast braised with off-brand Coca-Cola and tater tot casserole. Together, my parents, my brother and I remained a take-and-bake household, a Lean Cuisine household, a Hot Pocket household. We were not people who took joy in the preparation or consumption of food.
My brother and I spent our youth shuttling along the western edge of Lake Michigan between our mom and my stepdad in Green Bay, Wis., and our dad and his partner, who were forever moving from house to house somewhere along the edge of Chicagoland. I felt most alive during our rare weekends there, spent draped in cosmopolitan anonymity. Watching people lounge at the downtown beaches and casually dine at upscale restaurants, I saw a fantasy of my adult life play out in front of me. Like the chefs on Food Network, the people who lived in Chicago knew of the world and its wonders. I wanted to be the sort of person who had a passport, who could hold a conversation in another language. I wanted extraordinary, I wanted grand, and I was convinced they existed only somewhere else.
Since I left the Midwest after college five years ago, the everyday act of cooking and eating has become an ever-present opportunity for self-improvement. I’ve learned to season breakfast sausage with sage and white wine, and top a chirashi with shiso chiffonade. My dinner spreads have evolved to include dishes that once felt alien and impenetrable, like duck tagine and vegan béarnaise. I’ve learned to cherish marinated tofu, braised leeks, roasted brussels sprouts and all manner of food my family rejects.
When my stepdad entered hospice care in Wisconsin this summer, and I began the dizzying plummet into grief, I started questioning my endless search for more. What if in improving the quality of my life, I had given up something more meaningful?
Returning home, I hoped to introduce my family to the joys of saffron rice and lamb Bolognese; my goal quickly changed to getting them to eat anything at all. Grief does strange, confusing things. For weeks, my mom had been subsisting on a diet of sour candies and fruit. My brother emerged from his room only in manic flurries, leaving kitchen surfaces smeared in teriyaki sauce. I searched for some nourishment they would accept or some recipe they would find enticing, but I realized that I didn’t know what their comfort foods were, or what or where they ate on a daily basis. Going back home to New York, a place most of my family has never visited, felt simultaneously like a relief and a betrayal.