My Type-A, color-in-the-lines, play-by-the-rules personality helps make me a meticulous editor and deadline-conscious writer. But it does not set me up to be the life at any party. Usually at parties, I’m the person wondering if jumping off that roof is safe, or if there are enough snacks, or if the music is too loud. A grandmother in the making, my friends joke.
But in my kitchen, I shed my typical persona. I don’t follow rules there. Recipes are more like guidelines, and meal plans are frequently scrapped when something new comes to mind. When my husband asks for repeat recipes, I rarely remember how I created the dish the first time. It’s the one area in my life where I am whimsical and impulsive and seldom second-guess my instincts.
When I cook, I don’t prep. I don’t take notes. I don’t measure or overthink. There are no cups or teaspoons or weights. It’s a heap of this and a handful of that, and an eyeballing of such and such. And there is always room to throw in extra ingredients. It’s a total antithesis to how I typically operate, and I relish and rejuvenate in those moments of spontaneity, those moments outside the normal me.
I suppose it’s not that different than childhood me — the one who could lose herself in hours of pretending to be any number of things I was not. I was a cowgirl, riding around on my pretend horse. Or Laura Ingalls Wilder, setting up camp on the prairie (which happened to be our family room). I was a dancer brought onto the R.E.M. tour, where I’d perform for thousands of people instead of my parents and baby siblings. Even as an adult, there’s something to be said for losing yourself for a few moments in the fantasy you.
It may be embarrassing to admit that the most fun I have is when I’m alone in my kitchen, singing to Fleetwood Mac while concocting a new recipe or doctoring an old one. But I feel a creative surge on the days when the pantry is bare and I must dig into its depths to find a can of this or a sprig of that and see what inventive combinations come to mind. I appreciate how a shake of this makes one dish but a few dashes of that will transform it entirely. And I treasure this activity where my Type-A brain shuts off and I can lose myself in an hour or two of julienning, sautéing and whipping.
That’s not to say I cook much that is fancy. I aim for my meals to be semi-familiar, enjoyable and comforting. Food, in my opinion, is not simply physical nourishment — it’s a way to welcome someone in. To provide for another. To love. To excite. To experiment. To surprise. To translate emotion into edible product. And it all culminates in that first bite. On our first night in our married home, I made a pot roast for my husband. He arrived at the dinner table at 10 p.m., long after I had eaten alone. I had set our new china and put out the crystal candlestick holders, though we had no candlesticks.
The weekend had been a blur, and I imagine returning to work less than 48 hours after your wedding could not have been pleasant. But as I set before him a steaming plate piled high, I watched his eyes widen. And as he took the first bite, I watched the day’s worries melt as he smiled and chewed.
There’s an honesty in how people react to taste that’s akin to watching a child open a Christmas present. The immediacy of the reaction, the truthfulness, is just fun to watch . . . even if occasionally negative.
In the past few months, I’ve settled into a new role as a military wife. It came with rules and formalities and stressors and big life decisions. It also came with the realization that my love of cooking is a gift. I realized that when my husband is preoccupied with work, I can help him relax with a hot (and preferably spicy) meal at the end of the day. I realized that cooking a meal offers a reason to welcome many of his colleagues and their families into our home so we can get to know them better. And I realized that delivering refreshment to a family dealing with an illness or caring for a new baby allows us to express compassion and generosity in a very simple way.
It’s pretty fun when the way you have fun brings you closer to others. Maybe cooking is not such a solo activity after all.
Tara Hunt McMullen, a former associate editor of this magazine, is now the keeper of the world’s best brownie recipe.