An Edible Religion

What seems simple and common—inviting my boyfriend over for dinner—isn’t.  A year ago cooking for a man would mean a stew, grilled chicken, maybe some pasta.  But not anymore.  A carefully worded suggestion in his measured tone with a modicum of faith, and I closed the book on taste and turned a new page, finding a bible in nutrition.  I stopped eating for pleasure and started eating for strength.

“Would you be amenable to changing your diet?” he’d asked.

It was the beginning of the end of dining out, propelling me into a whole new world, without ever leaving my house or his. Before that pivotal moment, every Saturday night meant a new Korean restaurant: a pre-dinner spread of pickled appetizers and tiny bowls of seaweed, two whole fish I’d never heard of, tofu and vegetables in a soup spicy enough to demand white rice. I looked over at him.  In the space between his office and dining room, a perfect transition as our Sunday together wound to a close, we drank a cup of tea. My body easily found the corner of the loveseat, leaning against its arm, and he slid in beside me, like he always did. His furniture matched his elegance: dark mahogany beneath blue silk cushions lettered with the Chinese character for prosperity. He looked delicate sitting there, his legs balanced off the wooden edge, hands between his knees, head hanging down, not in despair, but in quiet contemplation.

I nodded in response.  That was enough.

The specific changes weren’t altogether radical, and it wasn’t the first time they’d been recommended to me.  No meat, only fish; no dairy.  The list of don’ts grew over time, becoming a scripture I followed with the dedication of a monk.  No sugar, no fried foods, no processed foods, no packaged foods, no refined carbohydrates.  I incorporated every do and don’t into what I ate.  In gratitude, my body shed weight, until I felt like I was floating as I moved from place to place.  I hadn’t realized I was drowning—every poor food choice I made an anchor that kept me weighted down. My mind followed suit and swam to the surface, and my spirit found the air it needed and inhaled.

I died. I was resurrected. I was born again. Washing away the gastronomic sins of my past, I ate meal after meal, every food its own baptismal drop of water. I found a new religion, an edible one.

But I didn’t just eat; I cooked.  And on Tuesdays, I cooked for two.

 

Every Tuesday at six o’clock without fail, a knock makes its way through my two-story apartment-turned-condominium like the sound of a judge dropping his gavel—distinct, loud, confident. I know the echo his fist makes when it strikes my door just as well as I know his face, his eyes, his hair, or his hands.  And once I hear it, the only light the receding dusk of evening, I rise from my black leather sofa where I sit reading the latest gospel on whole grains.  Tiny little differences make every Tuesday its own: the embrace hello paired with a kiss or free to stand alone, the wind through the open door whispering in our ears or hiding in its silence.  Enveloped inside his arms, I shrink in his protective grasp, resting my cheek against his collarbone, not wanting to move. I release my hands, running them up and down his spine, committing the feel of every vertebra in his slight, willowy frame to memory.  Always too soon for me, he’ll look down at my face and put his hands on my shoulders, a sign that it’s time to sit down.  With that, we separate and slide into the sofa to commence our date.

On those first few Tuesdays, I was an amateur of a cook: a wild-caught salmon brushed in a miso glaze with some steamed bok choy.  My indoctrination in the credo of food had barely begun.  My conversion wasn’t complete; I was still halfway between eating for taste and eating for life.  But now, nearly ten months later, I’ve turned what I eat into a process, one that keeps changing.  Books, blogs, articles, recipes, studies, reports—a homemade education into the world of food.  I’ll never be a veteran, or an expert, at this. But I can’t discount the journey, or where each step on this path takes me, even if I’m only moving side to side.  The destination won’t stand still, and after awhile, I forget where I was headed.  It’s the ultimate road trip—the car and the weather are all that matters, not so much where I’m going.  I lean back, and enjoy the sound of the road beneath my tires and the feel of the wind through my hair.

Tuesday evening really comes into being on Saturday morning.  I take my car down Kirby Drive, swing a left onto Richmond Avenue, hang a right onto Eastside, and park my car in a reserved space. A compilation disc I made calms me as I drive, transporting me to another time and place.  I’m not cooking for him in this reverie, I’m dancing, our hands held tight as we twist and bend in a downward spiral, almost touching the floor.  I close my eyes and relish in the flashback before I redirect my attention to what awaits me outside. I turn off the engine.  Hat in hand, sunglasses on, I pop the trunk, grab that unmistakable Whole Foods brown paper bag with its green ink, worth every dime earned by its reuse, and head towards the sound of the party.

Personalities abound at the farmers market, but I only know its smiling faces by food, not by name.  The pecan lady, the tangerine lady, the watercress lady.  There’s the mild-mannered Chinese guy, the woman who doesn’t rubber band her greens but bags them, the shaggy-haired guy with his farming cooperative manifestos.  Walking past the twenty-something singer and her acoustic guitar, I throw a couple of dollar bills in her case and scan the tents for the words “organic” or “sustainable,” poking my head around the more aggressive customers to see what’s in season.  Armed with a mental grocery list, I stop at a few stands, ask about price, and drop oranges, lemons, kale, collards, bok choy, green onions, and fennel into my bag, and I’m off.  No Indian food, no soap, no organic coffee for me.  Just the greens, please, and maybe a tangerine or two.

A different woman since this exploration into nutrition, I head over to Whole Foods, a store I used to hate for all its pretension and trendiness. Not only has my perception of the organically inclined grocery store shifted, my walks through its aisles alter my mood, easing me into a state of peace every Saturday morning.  Sun through the store’s windows warms my skin, flowering plants welcome me as I enter, and tattooed clerks smile and wave, seeing a little of my brother in me, who used to be one of their own.  Wheeling the perfect-sized, two-level cart straight to the bulk aisle, I scan the beans and grains for something interesting with an offsetting flavor, and maybe a little color.  Pulling down the green lever, bag snug around its mouth, I love how the grain whispers as it falls into my hands.  The beans make their own percussion, kissing each other on their way down.  Soon, they’ll all be part of me and my chemistry will be forever changed.

In a marriage ceremony of sorts, I bring beans and grains together on Monday night, bathing them in only the finest natural spring water, and they thank me by softening while I slumber.  In the morning, I add life to their bathwater, and their potential: the juice of a few limes, maybe an orange or a lemon, some soy sauce, a little vinegar, and perhaps a splash of rice wine.  While I work, they drink it all in, getting ready to impart a renewed energy into a couple of lovebirds later that night.  By late afternoon, cold will turn to hot when I place them on the stove at the lowest setting, not wanting to rush even one bean into its next state.  A couple of hours later, water gone, both grains and beans will be ours to partake.

Finally, he arrives.  Beer and unpredictable conversation lead us closer to dinnertime, and we stand in unison and head towards the dimly-lit kitchen.  I pull fennel and kale and onions from their resting place, and he points to each, advising how much.  As I chop and slice my way through white and green, his large hands unsheathe garlic, no longer cocooned but free to be eaten.  I mince garlic and ginger with speed, throw it in a red sauté pan already shining under its coat of sesame oil.  From the farmers’ hands to mine, onions and greens come to life beneath their glass roof. We watch, holding one another in the corner of the room, until it’s time to dine.

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