When my marriage fell apart, I stopped cooking. I gave my children frozen chicken nuggets, pizza, quesadillas, or their favorite: toddler tapas—cheese sticks, nuts, fruit, crackers, veggies, all displayed on a hand-me-down china platter. Now they eat like “fancy ladies,” as my first grader says piling her little paper plate with nuts and grapes. I live off of bagged salads, rotisserie chicken, and whiskey.
I stopped cooking because I was tired. The kind of tired where your face vibrates and your eyes throb. Too tired to care what I put in my mouth. And my children (then six and four) only wanted to eat go-Gurts and Cheez-its anyway. The person who cared was my husband. I had been cooking for him for 12 years.
When we first married and moved to Iowa, I couldn’t find a job. I spent my days cooking. I worked my way through the Joy of Cooking—mastering pastry dough for beef wellington, rolling tortillas on the kitchen floor of our apartment because there was no counter space. I cut open chicken breasts and stuffed them with blue cheese. I braided challah and pinched gnocchi. I made all sorts of pie—lemon, French silk, apple, so many kinds of apple—their molten insides burning my fingers and my tongue as I sampled them hoping they’d turn out. Hoping that when he came home, my husband would sit down and taste them and say, “Thank you.”
Inspired by online recipe sites, he’d sit down to dinner and then let me know what rating I earned.. “If I give you five out of five, you’ll quit,” he joked. And I laughed because when I was in my 20s. I believed that you were supposed to laugh when someone hurt your feelings. I thought you were constantly supposed to be trying harder.
I did try harder. I developed my own pizza dough recipe and every Friday would make pizzas—barbeque pork, goat cheese and heirloom tomato, chicken and ranch, caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella, mac and cheese. I made them thin and thick. Sweet and savory. My dough recipe took years to develop and a whole day to make. I’d begin on Fridays at five in the morning, finishing with the dishes at seven at night.
I collected recipes, printing them out and dutifully making notes in the margins on how many stars he gave them and any feedback he had—too oniony, too garlicky, too spicy, not enough meat. And even later, when I did get a job, and when I went to graduate school, I filled the freezer for him—casseroles, homemade cookies, pans of brownies. I’d crock pot stew and portion it off into little bags, leaving notes that instructed how to de-thaw, how to reheat. How to eat without me there.There were lapses of course. When I had babies. Or the time I had a kidney infection and sciatica. But during those times, friends brought us food.I remember once, when the kids were little, I begged him to bring home food. “Just do it,” I said. “Just come home with a rotisserie chicken or a pile of one dollar hamburgers from McDonald’s, anything.”
“But what if you’ve already planned something?”
My nipples were raw from breastfeeding. My brain numb from lack of sleep. I laughed thinking about whatever failed casserole or half-hearted pasta I’d thrown together the night before. “I’d be so happy.”
In the tangle of performance and purpose, in my quest to make a home, I had created elaborate offerings, which were consumed and judged, and yet afforded me no redemption, no grace, no more than four out of five stars.
And then, one night, as my daughter watched TV, my toddler screamed from the living room, and the water boiled, collecting steam on the windows, I broke. I cut and chopped and desperately looked at a recipe on my phone. My back burned with frustration. My feet ached from standing. The steam flushed my cheeks and I wondered at the molecules that could escape from the heat as I stood trapped there, spatula in my hand.
It’s hard for me to understand when cooking became more repression than liberation, more act of obligation than act of creation. But I knew it then. This thing that had sustained me now felt like a prison. And whose fault was it? It certainly wasn’t all my husband’s. After all, hadn’t I wanted to cook? Hadn’t I enjoyed it? Hadn’t I found purpose in the texture of the cinnamon rolls, the ache of my arm as a whisked a French silk pie over a double boiler. But who had that ever been for? I couldn’t remember.
In the tangle of performance and purpose, in my quest to make a home and love, I had created elaborate offerings, which were consumed and judged, and yet afforded me no redemption, no grace, no more than four out of five stars.
That night, I dumped the water in the sink. Tossed the ingredients in the trash. I poured myself a glass of wine and threw some frozen chicken nuggets in the microwave. When my husband came home, we were already eating.
That was the last time I cooked for two years. That first year, we were in couple’s therapy almost weekly. I would wake up at five in the morning and go work out. Then, I’d come home, get the kids ready for school, drop them off, and come back to the house and cry. I was supposed to be working. But mostly I just sat and stared at the Word document that had become my daily journal and wept. Then I would try to nap in the guest room until it was time to pick up the kids from school.It’s amazing the energy it takes to not cry in a Target aisle or not to pound the steering wheel in the school pick-up lane. It’s incredible the sheer force of will it takes to look at people you don’t know in the eye and say, “How are you? Oh me? I am fine.” Over and over without screaming that everything you love and hoped to have in this world was unraveling and you couldn’t fix it.
After all of that, I didn’t have the energy to cook.
I stopped cooking because I wanted to feel as unencumbered as man walking through the door of his home with the expectation that something had been done for him. I wanted to be free of cutting coupons and rolling dough and worrying about dinner times and feeding. I wanted to rest.
That year of unraveling we were still in the same house and he still came home every day. “What’s for dinner?” he asked every time. And every time, I’d stare at him. The energy it takes not to give someone the finger is enormous. So, I’d just stay silent and eat from my salad, while he stood there, confused about what to do.
I stopped cooking because I wanted to feel as unencumbered as man walking through the door of his home with the expectation that something (everything) had been done for him. I wanted to be free of cutting coupons and rolling dough and worrying about dinner times and feeding. I wanted to rest. To be just like him and sit with the kids and play. I wanted to lie on the couch and watch Curious George and snuggle tiny arms, tiny hands. I wanted to watch TV or order in. Or forget dinner and have popcorn instead. So I did.
He didn’t stop asking what was for dinner until I moved out.
In the new place, Greek yogurt, bagged salads, and a charcuterie-of-the-month club that I signed up for through a local restaurant sustain me. I tried HelloFresh but the bright expectations of the box made me furious. How dare you expect something of me too, I’d glare at it. I canceled. Now I make an occasional meal—tater-tot hot dish, sloppy joes, or tomato pie. I recently made a meal of smoked pork and corn for some friends. They thanked me,.”It’s too much,” they said. But those are the exceptions. I remain unencumbered.
Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Her book God Land will be out in August of 2019. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.
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