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Almost every childhood memory I have is centred on food. Telling stories over laughter around a crowded table at holiday dinners. The sound of sugar being stirred into a cup of tea, the smell of roasting vegetables, the feeling of heat coming from the kitchen, all conjure a familiar feeling of love and comfort inside me that cannot be reproduced by any other means.
My favourite memory of all is that of my grandfather kneading bread. My grandmother’s illness left her weakened, but determined to maintain a sense of normalcy, she continued to bake several loaves of bread on a weekly basis. I remember watching her, a colourful scarf covering her bald head, a cloud of flour above her, filling a bowl with ingredients that she measured by feeling. A recipe that was never written down but that she knew by heart. She would mix it until it came together and then turn it out onto the kitchen table, where my grandfather would roll up the sleeves of his dress shirt, remove his wedding ring and begin to work the dough.
Together, they would bake all the bread that they needed for the week. Ample loaves that rose high above the pan, that my grandmother would bless before tucking into the oven, filling their bungalow with the scents of comfort and love.
When she eventually died, my grandfather never made bread again. To this day, I have never tasted bread that was as good as theirs. No other loaf I have come across has ever been made with that kind of powerful, unconditional love.
When my husband came to me one December, shortly after Christmas, and told me he wasn’t happy, that he thought he wanted to separate, I found myself thrown into the absolute depths of despair. We had been together nine years, married for seven. We had two children and a home and a dog. We, on paper, were perfect. But sometimes perfection becomes mundane, and love begins to drift.
When it was about to be taken away, I realized that the routine day-to-day was disguised happiness all along. I had never known this kind of distress in my 31 years and had no skills to cope. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. I had two children to look after, so I couldn’t drown my sorrows in alcohol. So, I did what I knew how to do.
I pored over cookbooks. The more complicated the recipe, the less likely I was to have time to think about the disaster my life had become. Over the next few months, I attempted to suture my open wounds in the kitchen.
In the beginning, the kitchen was my solace. I enjoyed the solitude as I fried Brussels sprouts in bacon fat and butter. I battered chicken and stirred honey-garlic sauce and revelled in the control I had while standing over the stove. On exceptionally cold days, I would switch to soup. Thick chowder with chunks of fresh fish and generous amounts of cream. Cracked black pepper sprinkled over and crusty bread on the side to soak up the remnants.
I couldn’t think into the next minute. Every day was full of uncertainty. The only things I knew for sure was that 5 p.m. would come, and we all had to eat. And I always knew we would sit at the table as a family for supper.
I poured my heart onto the plate. It was cathartic. I purged my body of sadness and anger and fear and used those emotions to create beautiful meals. I aggressively minced garlic and crushed tomatoes. I used cayenne when rage filled my insides. Brown sugar when sadness washed over me. Vinegar when I felt bitter. Whatever emotion I tossed into our meals only made them more delicious. One evening, over a simmering Bolognese, I began to feel that we would all be okay, no matter the outcome. That I would survive this.
As time wore on, my semi-estranged husband began to inquire about suppers. These conversations began to feel somewhat normal. He began spending time in the kitchen, at first as a spectator, but soon chopping peppers for pasta or incorporating spices into ground beef for meatloaf. Because we were in such close quarters, we would talk as we cooked. Initially, it felt robotic. Just going through the motions. But it slowly turned into a new dance we were learning the steps to. His initial plan was to move out on March 1 as he knew of a place close to our family home that would become available on that date.
March 1 came and went. He did not.
In the spring I delved into barbecue. Together we made burgers stuffed with pepper jack cheese and seasoned with roasted garlic that he would grill while I simmered beer and bacon jam to spread on the buns. Conversations had become easy again. We would chat about our day as we manoeuvred our way around, peeling vegetables, mixing sauces, occasionally brushing elbows, him placing his hands on my waist as he passed me to get to the fridge.
By May, he had begun making reservations at restaurants we had never been to. We would sip wine and craft beer over five-course meals we would have never tried before. We would talk for hours about everything. No awkward pauses. No conflict. Conversations broken only by the arrival of caramelized onion tart, seafood bouillabaisse and laughter.
On Christmas morning, he placed a roughly wrapped gift in my lap. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The weight of both the book and its meaning lay heavy in my lap. Sitting there in the early morning light, surrounded by mountains of torn paper, two squealing children, tears streaming down my cheeks and with my husband by my side, I knew that we had come full circle. Just plain work had saved our marriage, but the food had healed our souls.
His gift was the beginning of a new adventure; to be filled with trial and error, work, commitment and love. Seasoned heavily with laughter and an occasional argument to taste.
I’m looking forward to coq au vin and chocolate souffle, in between rustic homemade pizzas and traditional chocolate chip cookies. I now know we have a lifetime of both love and cooking ahead of us, and who knows? Maybe one day, we’ll even tackle bread.
Lauren Byrne lives in Newfoundland.