Two autumns ago, on the broad avenue where I live in New York City, I abandoned a bicycle, a bulky blue gift from an ex who had never been quite right. The news back home was so bad I could barely speak, and I was single and living alone for the first time and I was afraid, distracting myself most days with walks through the lace of tree shadows, but one day, the chain came off. on my way somewhere, so I locked up the bike and started walking. This made for less of a distraction from the matter of my little apartment, where I was hell-bent on being very happy but where, despite being someone who had once made octopus on Tuesdays, I couldn’t bring myself to cook. The problem seemed entirely personal at first, the impact of cooking for one, instead of two, but I soon realized it had as much to do with the outside world as the inside, waking up every morning to the sound of children marching in protest against their president. We had just cast a man who got excited about mistreatment of women, and somehow anything traditionally feminine had started to repel me.
The collection of vintage cocktail dresses in my closet—printed silk and ruched chiffon—was left untouched. As fall fell, I donned a burgundy leather jacket with a shearling collar and ate without taking it off, sitting in Polish restaurants where I ordered kielbasa and something called Peanut Butter Pie, standing in pizzerias under the paint-stained photos. famous clients. From the back of the cellar freezers, I pulled out mysterious unbranded popsicles, summer waste, and ate those too. I must have thought that by eating this way, a strange and fragmentary diet, far from healthy, I was disguising my body from the inside out, transforming it into something no one could want.
The guilt I felt for avoiding my kitchen was almost Catholic. I cringed every time I looked in my fridge, which looked like a place destroyed by war, some carrots that I hadn’t roasted had come loose in the crisper drawer, one shelf or another with the blood stain from the jam I was always eating. in the middle. at night to make up for the food he hadn’t gotten. But as I imagined cooking the grandiose dinner parties she’d thrown, I couldn’t help but wonder what conversations I’d missed when I caramelized the onions and carried the ramekins back to the kitchen. What power had I lost, what ideas had I not followed, what conception of myself as an individual had I abandoned in the name of a generalized female silhouette? I hated the memory of the apron around my neck, the wooden spoon in my hand, the obliging apology in my mouth. In his critique, John Berger writes about how women are always spectators and spectators, trained to see themselves as they should appear. Voracious in my scab-red jacket, I saw the truth in this and wanted to become the exception. Giving up cooking was less a decision I made than a series of happy choices I couldn’t make.
My kitchen itself, which hardly deserves the name, didn’t make things any easier. When I first saw the apartment, even the unpleasant owner admitted to the pathetic state of it. If you want to use the oven, he said, patting his scalp grease with the combover, you’ll have to call and turn on the gas, but you could just use it for storage. Almost as big as a closet, the kitchen contains so little counter space that a necessary drying rack takes up the whole thing. Only an eager and determined child could fit between the hob and the stove, which hugs a wall that the proximity of the flames has painted a brownish patina. The cooler has broken twice, always giving amazing performance before, a hum, then a jungle cat roar.
Illustration: Eric Chow
As winter deepened, I forced myself to cook, listening to the news about the Muslim ban and abortion clinics in jeopardy. Anyone listening from the window, when I dropped my immersion blender in the sink of water, rendering it inoperable, or the flame went out again into something simmering, given the burner’s general refusal to stay at any level below the Medium, I would have guessed, of the sort of curses and yells emitted, not a single woman of relative sanity, but a couple on meth who are seriously considering divorce. “Fuck, fuck me,” I yelled. “I can not do this anymore”. The knob on my oven told tremendous lies about temperature, and the first cake I baked inside, a simple raspberry and buttermilk standard, seemed like a less-visited ruin. Even salads seemed like a risky proposition, given the lack of a snack counter, and my rickety round dining table wasn’t much of an alternative. When its wobbling unfortunately coincided with a knife cut, I cut myself so badly I had to lie down. Dating someone was as good as cooking. A man who had behaved perfectly in public said something so vile, once the door of his apartment was closed, that I ran out while he was in the bathroom, feeling both the hunger of loneliness and the clarity of nausea, the I want to never eat again. I passed my bike every day, and he kept telling myself that he would go open it and fix it, and then I lost the key.
Twice that year, I gave up my life, renting houses in wooded places where the only local business was the post office. This was to finish my novel, I told my friends, but also, I told myself, to cook in a proper kitchen. In both places—a dank cabin in the California redwoods with a cloudy view until noon, a shabby farmhouse on Maine’s Saco River—she was out of things she had come to believe were essentials: some tongs, a ladle, a blender, a whisk Both stoves were electric, prone to flash flames with even minimal grease. But the longer I was in there, the more I seemed to thrive under the constraints, enjoying the pull on my deltoids as I punched things out with my hand. The panna cotta seemed like something you couldn’t do too much to make yourself if it cooled in dirty old jugs instead of pretty ceramics, so I made it, and when it was done I ate it outside, with one foot on the deck and the another high on my inner thigh as I considered the age of the trees. On a day of particularly bad news during a sudden lifetime of theirs, my honey cornbread batter gained jalapenos and cayenne peppers, a ferocious heat that didn’t feel unreasonable. I was using the kitchen to express myself again, culinary eloquence the flip side of my political frustration, and it was something I had to do alone. My feminine resentment was wild during this time in my life, a bad dog that might bite in public and, like all biting animals, needed to be trained alone.
If women are taught to evaluate their effect on others before evaluating others’ effects on themselves, I am not an anomaly, often unable to attribute value to something whose merits are not immediately confirmed by someone else. Like most bad habits, this one is old, and I shudder to remember an early expression of his, one Saturday afternoon when I was five. Before me, an imaginary meal on a bright blue platter, my hair more spruced up than ever from a trip to the salon that morning, I waited, spruced up on my little plastic porch table, for a certain boy downstairs. walking street. In the front yard was a swing set I loved, a single two-by-four that rose dangerously high if you kicked hard enough, and across the street in the unhappy blind neighbor’s yard a thicket of blackberries that he often ransacked until it looked like a badly bruised knee. I should have scratched the trees as I kicked toward them that day, and I should have been purple from the juice, but I never got on the swing set and I never crossed the street. Instead, I sighed for the male voice that would tell me about the things on my plate, describe the new things I saw, until the darkness called.
Illustration: Eric Chow
If cooking for company is aspirational, cooking alone can be anything but, sort of like your first look in the mirror early in the morning, unpolished and uncensored. There are the simple things I do for myself that I wouldn’t do for anyone else (powdered cocoa beans and coconut milk, the only spice being a bay leaf) and ways I behave while cooking that I wouldn’t consider in the presence of someone else. from anyone else, a leg that I place on the table to stretch a muscle that I often strain while running. I believe in risotto prepared in pajamas, and also in following the strangeness of tastes until complete exhaustion. Craving a combination of salt and sweet, admittedly overly caffeinated, last month I crumbled some potato chips into my chocolate cake batter. That there was no one to look at this was as delicious to me as the thing itself.
Last week a friend made me a very amazing cup of coffee, strong and woody. Is that chicory? I asked. No, he said, cardamom. He ground it into the beans, and the private ceremony of this touched me, how he had not asked my approval. We started talking about our grandmothers, about hobbies that they wished were something more, and then about color, about how good the pale blue mugs looked next to the orange in the pitcher. I remembered something Kandinsky wrote: “Orange is like a man convinced of his own powers,” and then I drifted away from the conversation. It could be the female curse and blessing at the same time, I thought: except for the boats and cars we buy and have to repair, very little in this world compares to a woman in general. A powerful man is often thought of in the same sentence as other powerful men, but a powerful woman is almost always described only in terms of her own life.
My lease on this seedy kitchen will soon be up, and shortly thereafter it will be two years since the presidential inauguration of an open misogynist. There are ways I’ve learned to adapt to both: avoiding the electric mixer that splatters too close to the walls and trusting muscles instead, choosing not to kiss any man who says he doesn’t cook because their mothers do. I replaced the kitchen table with something less flashy and sturdier, a heavy hickory wood I found at a flea shop upstate, and still haven’t drawn blood. I think I qualify as some kind of civic offender for never salvaging that bike, and it’s my job to cut the lock off before I leave, but strangely it’s been important to watch it rot, they take different pieces each week, and I like to imagine the day when it is completely gone, the ways in which it was unhappy are gone with it.
Kathleen Alcott is the author of Infinite Home (Borough Press, £8.99)