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I’m locked in a staring contest with a piece of toast.
It isn’t anything remarkable. Just a piece of store-bought whole wheat bread with broiler-induced curling corners and uneven caramelization. The thick smear of butter I’ve layered on has not elevated it to any Instagram-worthy heights. I have no interest in taking a bite of this slice. It’s one more day my appetite has failed me … again.
The day I lost my appetite is the day I lost my husband, Sean, to brain cancer. That Thursday in 2012 I went from wife to widow. We had been the perfect pairing. I loved to cook; Sean loved to eat. And that chilly January night would ignite an insatiable hunger for a slice of my former life.
I want to be sitting down to a plate of prawn curry or be biting into a plump potato chop, but grief has cruelly robbed me of my appetite and killed my motivation to cook. Widowed at 30 in a city we had moved to less than a year ago as newlyweds, I was suddenly alone. And hungry. Very, very hungry.
The first treat I baked Sean was a buttermilk chocolate cake. He wolfed down seven slices. From then on, over our 11 years together, he would be my biggest culinary cheerleader. Cooking was my love language in action. It didn’t matter if the pasta was gummy or the pot roast was chewy – Sean ate with gusto. He was generous with his compliments and stingy in his critique. “It needs more salt,” was his harshest review.
Without Sean waiting at the table, the joy was sucked out of recreating my sister’s murgh malai kebabs. There was no need to try out a new cake recipe on his birthday each year. Or make spicy Goan choris pulao when he missed his mother’s cooking. Eating by myself – a lone plate and set of cutlery laid out – compounded my sense of loneliness. The tears often came fast and furious at mealtimes, so I scarfed down what I could manage standing over the kitchen island to avoid looking at the permanently empty chair across from me.
Fighting through the fog of grief depleted any creativity. Meals were reduced to a rotation of (often burnt) toast, one-pot rice dishes and pan-charred corn kernels with lashings of hot sauce. While my brain was trying to process the discombobulating stages of loss, my broken heart was craving healing. A samosa would be nice, too.
Months later, after my rotating diet of carbs finally lost its appetizing factor, I found a solution: I started cooking for other people.
It started with “family dinner,” which I hosted every couple of weeks for my three Muay Thai classmates. The menu ranged from chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cauliflower cake and burnt eggplant dip one evening to Iranian tahdig and saffron chicken the next. Once, I crammed over a dozen guests into my tiny condo for tacos piled high with slow-cooked beef barbacoa and homemade salsa. When a friend returned to his apartment in the same building, I invited our buddies (doubling as the moving crew) over for an Indian feast cooked entirely from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery. The validation I was craving was now being supplied by satisfied burps and requests for doggy bags. Slowly, my love for cooking was reignited.
Although feeding friends was a good distraction, cooking just for myself seemed hedonistic. Too self-indulgent. If I posted to social media, would people think I was craving attention? Worse still, would it come across as having too much fun? I was supposed to be in the dark depths of widowhood, not trying to be the next Ina Garten. The excuses multiplied. Still reticent, I committed to cooking a big Sunday lunch weekly for myself, like my mother did when my sister and I were kids.
I started with a familiar recipe, chicken and coconut stew, that I’d made several times with my grandmother’s blend of Madras curry powder. Time flew by as I fluffed up the pea pulao to serve it with and chopped onion, tomato and green chillies for junglee salad. The next week I got more ambitious with a giant casserole of biryani. I turned on music while frying the onions and found myself singing karaoke-style, wooden spoon in hand, by the time the meat was ready to layer over the basmati. By week three, I was challenging myself to make pasta from scratch. As I experimented with new dishes and cooking techniques, my focus shifted from bitter loneliness to the anticipation of what the finished product would be. Bonus: there were usually plenty of leftovers to savour later.
During the week I combed through cookbooks and the internet to prepare for my weekend project. The more unfamiliar the recipe, the deeper the perfectionist in me was invested in getting it right. I learned to reverse-sear a steak perfectly medium-rare. Craving my mother’s cooking, I attempted, then overcooked, duck moile, a braise made with East Indian bottle masala. Crisp Cantonese pork belly, I decided, was best left to the professionals in Chinatown. Successes and disasters were in equal measure. My mother in Bombay and my sister, a professional chef, in Seattle received frantic video calls and images of ingredients being massacred when I was in crisis. At the end of the dramedy there was clean-up to contend with, keeping my brain occupied with scraping and scrubbing instead of slipping back into the melancholy of mourning.
Nine years on I still eat toast, however, now it’s gussied up like tapas, with sardines tossed in fresh herbs and lemon juice or baked beans topped with an egg sunny side up. Whether I’m celebrating or dealing with disappointment I do what I know best – I cook. It lets me pause my galloping thoughts and be absorbed in the moment enjoying the texture of ingredients in my hands, the musical sizzles and squeaks and aromas waft around me. I’m still too timid with the salt, but if my journey back to the stove has taught me anything, it’s that life isn’t perfect. It’s often messy. Pretty much like the state of the kitchen after one of my culinary experiments. More importantly, I’ve realized cooking is an expression of love for yourself, too. And tackling the inevitable ups and downs that life brings is always easier on a full stomach.
Beverley Ann D’Cruz lives in Toronto.