Soul Food.

Soul Food

On any given Thursday night around 5:30 pm, I send a text to my better half.

“Home in 20.  I’ll get dinner sorted.”

Often, he responds with gentle protests: “But you’ve had such a busy week! And we still have that lentil/kale/virtuous grain thing you made on Sunday for lunches and haven’t touched yet!”

And yes, in case you’re wondering, he’s an all-around way better person than me; his calm ­­­and steady countenance a balm for my itchy angst and chronic must do-itis.

He’s almost always right. It usually has been a busy week and by this point in it, I’m often spent; possibly even cranky beyond recognition. If it’s September or October, well, multiply that feeling by six hundred. Yet even after two decades of together, he sometimes forgets that we all have our own strategies for coping with overwhelm, and for moving ourselves from what can often be a debilitating mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, even if only in the contours of hearts. For me, the strategy is usually pretty simple: I make dinner.

Fear not, friends, for I have not lost my feminist marbles. While I struggle as much as other women with the relentless pressures of balancing motherhood, a busy full- job and a host of other commitments, grand illusions of a perfectly managed household have never really been my thing. My house is reasonably clean, but that is mainly because we are far too lazy to buy stuff and we both find the prospect of home decorating to be paralyzing. My kids are mostly presentable, and on a good week, there might even be an extra fluffy towel or two lying in wait in the bathroom–because really, who can resist a fluffy towel?–but that’s basically the extent of what I can manage on the Domestic Goddess front. My partner, the aforementioned way better person than me, takes care of almost everything else.

But what goes on in my kitchen, and more specifically, what goes on in my oven, my slow cooker, or even my microwave, is an entirely different story. The kitchen, and most chores that are connected to food in our lives—meal planning, list making, fridge cleaning, cupboard organizing—they almost always fall to me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In her gorgeous book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question that I have found myself returning to with increasing frequency this past year.  She asks: what is saving your life right now? Here, I think she means for us to consider all the things, experiences and our relationships that elevate our perspective, that feed our creativity and our sense of purpose, and offer us an ounce of coherence and wholeness in a world that often feels bound and determined to break us down. My family and friends always figure prominently in my answers to this question, but so does making dinner.

I find every step single satisfying: hunting down recipes, making lists and taking mental inventories of the local shops that are most likely to have enoki mushrooms, za’tar, or some other random ingredient in the mouth-watering Ottolenghi recipe that I have decided MUST be on my plate that night. Invariably, I track down the illusive ingredient at the specialty market, where I will of course also spend $16 on a bag of gourmet cheese breadsticks because you only live once and also because, well, did I mention they are cheese breadsticks?

At home, the ritual continues. I unpack the bags and carefully lay out the ingredients on my freshly wiped counter. I select the perfect culinary soundtrack, which I will listen to for exactly six and half minutes before my daughter appears in the kitchen to request the Shawn Mendez song that makes me want to stab my eyes out with a fork. I gently retrieve the rippled white serving bowls that my oldest friend gave to us when we bought our first house, and I always think of her fondly as I lay them down in wait.

Slowly, the symphony begins. It opens with the slow and measured strokes of rinsing and drying and moves to the staccato rhythm of chopping, dicing and slicing, interrupted only by the satisfying sweep of the knife’s edge across my cutting board. Measuring, pouring, peeling, grating, stirring, salting, tasting, I slowly begin to lose myself to the effort, moving further away from the day’s busy thoughts and concerns, and closer to rest. With every movement, I move deeper into connection with myself, and into the memories of the hands that once cooked for me. I see my Dad’s hands sweeping flour across the aluminum pizza sheets –made with his own hands—and picture my mom’s wedding band sitting in the turtle shaped cup at the corner of the sink as she scours the burnt pan. By the time my cast iron pan offers up to me its familiar sizzle and splatter, I am home.

As strange as this may sound, this is my favourite of prayer.

I lay the plates down, and I become aware of how my heart feels like it’s been recalibrated. As I listen to the cut and thrust of dinner debates and increasingly alarming variations of the “Would You Rather” game, I feel a swell of quiet gratitude that, a mere two hours before, seemed entirely impossible. I try to sit in its wake for just a bit longer before I start to gather up the dishes and conjure up plans for leftovers.

We all have our own ways of praying, or just reconnecting to ourselves and to what matters to us. My way just happens to routinely involve a lemon roasted chicken, a side of garlic rapini, and a glass of bold Malbec.

Somehow, I think God would approve.