The potatoes are cold in my hands, imbued with the chill of the refigerator. My husband will only peel potatoes after they’ve been sitting in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes, but I prefer to do it quickly and go on to other things. Dusty brown peelings curl off into the trash can, the little pile growing fast as the white flesh of the tuber is revealed. When the potatoes are chopped and placed in boiling water, I raid the crisper for other vegetables: Carrots, onions, fresh garlic (a staple in my kitchen), celery, corn. I have a method for chopping each different vegetable—the carrots are sliced in half long-wise and then diced into half-moons; the onions are gently scored in both directions across the top, so that when I cut off an inch from the onion’s face, I’m rewarded with a shower of evenly-chopped pieces falling to my cutting board.
I vividly remember a conversation I had shortly after getting married, when I was still part-time in college and struggling to get the degree I knew was out of my reach for the time being. “I want to like cooking,” I had said into the phone. “I feel like it’s the kind of thing that I should enjoy, that I could enjoy. I feel like it’s something that could bring me a huge amount of satisfaction. But I’m always just too tired.”
And I was. Even with a light class load, by the time I got home from my one or two classes in a day and finished my homework, I’d exhausted my slim supply of energy for that day. I made dinner each nigth with my husband because I believed in good, home-cooked food, and I loved eating the fruits of our labors—but I rarely enjoyed the experience. Always, I felt that frustrating sense that the true joy of cooking was just out of my reach, the kind of thing I ought to feel, but didn’t.
I baked bread, and ended up so tired I could hardly enjoy the finished product. I made muffins, and thought that cleaning the muffin tin might be the death of me. I cooked soups and puddings and even, on occasion, things like pasta from scratch, reveling in the knowledge that I could identify every ingredient that went into our meals—but ultimately, feeling utterly spent by the task.
Two years later, when I began the true transition from part-time studenthood to full-time homemaking, I was surprised to discover that suddenly, I was beginning to love cooking. All at once, as I began to spend less time in the classroom and have more time for the kitchen, I was feeling all those things I had thought I should feel before. Baking became a celebration. Chopping vegetables became a game. Doing the dishes afterward became a meditation.
Now, as I sweep a neat pile of onions and carrots from my cutting board into a pan for sautéeing, I think about that time of transition. Cooking still tires me, of course; it’s a physical task, one that requires time spent standing up, and often one that demands strength in the kneading or rolling out of dough. But in my life as it stands now, that’s all right. I may be tired afterwards, but I have the liberty to spare a few minutes for rest and recovery.
It is, I think, a perfect example of the unexpected joy the last few years have brought me—my adult life in a microcosm. For such a long time, I was frightened of my plans being changed, terrified of being forced to find something new to define myself. And yet, when that change did come, it wasn’t meaninglessness that lay on the other side—it was just a different kind of purpose, a different shape to my days.
A different shape, but a good one.
I pour extra-virgin olive oil over my pan of vegetables, letting the rich, fruity scent of the oil assail my senses, hearing the crackle and pop as it hits the bottom of the hot skillet.
And in this quiet kitchen moment, I know what it is to feel peace.