Notes from a Food Scholar

Sarah Grainer, LongHouse Food Scholar, July 2016

Disorienting week.

It was cold yesterday. Half the people here are from the Midwest or Northeast and laughed when I said it was wintertime, but it was wintertime to my Southern senses. Windy, 60 degrees, foggy, wet. It was wintertime in July and I was on a pig farm in upstate New York eating something called a buckle and thinking about what a fucked up week it had been.

The unease is heightened because I’m not at home and can’t process my thoughts or work through my anxieties the way I normally would, which usually means obsessively cleaning the house, reorganizing shit that doesn’t need to be reorganized, and making myself dinner.

Cooking is about control and low-stakes decisions. It’s comforting whether I’ve had a bad day at work or a week where it seems the world is ending. Far away from home, I have control over nothing. People I met a week ago are cooking all my meals for me. I’m only allowed in the kitchen if I’m wearing shoes. It’s luxurious to be in a beautiful place having beautiful meals put in front of me three times a day, and undoubtedly, I’m lucky.

But I also don’t know what to do with myself. Yesterday we had an impromptu cooking competition that stemmed from a table full of random ingredients, one of which was a head of cabbage. I suggested we make spicy cabbage, the kind I make all the time at home. I got to stand at the stove and stir. Forgot how much I love to stand in that spot and stir something. It smelled familiar and like all my favorite stuff: spice, soy sauce, that rich fish sauce stink.

I used to eat this dish in Chicago a lot in the apartment I shared with Anna. I’ve served it to my friends at weekly family dinner more than once, and countless times I’ve made it to eat alone on my couch while I watch “Gilmore Girls” and forget about whatever needs to be temporarily forgotten. It’s great because I know how to cook it almost mindlessly, so I get the peace and relaxation of cooking without any of the energy or creativity required to improvise.

When you’re being waited on you forget how special it feels to take care of someone else. In a place far from home feeling distressed about the state of things, the way we can treat one another, it is a powerful thing for someone to enjoy eating something you made. That feeling of simple connectedness.

It’s wonderful, necessary even, to escape the world by cooking and letting your mind drift. And then you come back because there is more listening and learning to be done, and we need to pay attention to one another. That is necessary, too. I needed to cook because I needed to do something, to busy my hands, but also because I needed to do something for someone else. Even something small, like spicy cabbage.

Sarah Grainer is a teacher and writer. She holds a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, TimeOut Chicago, Gambit Weekly, the Austin American-Statesman, and elsewhere. Sarah lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.

BlogSarah Grainer