In almost all of my childhood memories, kitchens act as the backdrop. From the private quiet of our kitchen at home to the bustling early mornings at my parents’ bakery, my memories are all marked by cast iron, chef whites, and stainless steel.
Most of these memories are sweet and comforting, the kitchen a space of joy and sustenance. I remember my mother’s cotton dress at eye level, white wine, and evening sunshine streaming through our kitchen window. At my parents’ bakery, my mom would grasp my hand as we walked past the Kitchen Aid mixer as tall as I was at 6 years old, with cooks yelling, the griddle searing hot and sizzling, and my dad butchering cuts of meat as big as his leg.
But there are also the memories that round out my childhood – 12 years old, binge eating in front of the refrigerator in the middle of the night and sneaking knives out of the drawers into the bathroom. My brother, a blackout drunk and depressed ghost of himself, breaking glasses on the cheap linoleum floor. The trauma, the perfectionism, the anxiety and volatility and shame all beginning in and radiating from this epicenter of the home and the workplace, this space both public and private, of both nourishment and deprivation.
Every night, I would sit on the bar stools facing the kitchen while my dad cooked dinner. He had worked as a chef for 25 years, so for him cooking was serious, time-sensitive, and precise. It was work. So if a pot wasn’t where he put it last or the butter hadn’t thawed completely or he forgot to preheat the oven, he panicked (gruffly and brusquely and tactlessly). Marco Pierre White, an English chef, explains this high-achieving restaurant kitchen atmosphere: “If you are not extreme then people will take shortcuts because they don’t fear you. And to achieve and retain the very highest standards, day after day, meal after meal, in an environment as difficult and fast and chaotic as a restaurant kitchen, is extreme, well, in the extreme.”
So cooking in our house was never fun – it was business. For the most part, I just stayed out of the kitchen. But when I did help, and if I made a mistake, my dad would sigh his signature, heavy sigh, whisper “shit” or “goddammit” or sometimes a more mild “oh no,” and move me out of the way to do it himself.
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That extremism was a part of me, ingrained in me over the years like kneaded dough. I would burst into tears if I couldn’t figure out a math problem right away. I would repeat and pick apart conversations, mulling over how stupid or rude or nervous I had sounded. I criticized myself endlessly, from the smallest details of my appearance to the biggest character flaws. When someone pointed out something I had done well, I pushed forward without thought and without pride. To me, perfectionism wasn’t worthy of praise. It was just the status quo. But the status quo was leaving me powerless over my own happiness. For a long time I just assumed that was a part of life – anxiety, stress, and fear permeating every choice we make, the quiet dread of failure simmering just below the surface.
Then I moved away from home and met my college boyfriend. On our first date we cooked dinner in his apartment, and I kept asking all these inane questions. Should I break up the bacon with a fork or with my hands? Should the dough be this thin or thinner? How much salt should we use in the sauce? But, like, how many teaspoons, exactly? A few dates later, I offered to cook. I found myself a little behind and started putting myself down as I scrambled to get everything timed and executed perfectly. He looked at me very calmly and perhaps a bit confused and said, “You do know if this doesn’t work out we can always order pizza.” The relief that flooded me in that moment was almost comical. No, I didn’t know. I was overwhelmed by tunnel vision – either I executed this dinner perfectly (and on time) or I had failed.
Slowly, with stops and starts, I began to apply this philosophy elsewhere. When an event I was planning at work had an unexpected delay, or something came up we hadn’t thought of? I reached out for help, did some breathing exercises, and pushed forward with a new plan. When the Craigslist apartment I found fell through days before I was supposed to move in? I crashed on a friend’s couch. When dinner burnt or stuck to the pan or turned out inexplicably mushy? We just ordered pizza.
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As it turned out, there was always a plan B. And as I realized this, I began to rediscover the fun and joy and curiosity of cooking. Peeling the slimy skins like eels off roasted red peppers, pulling bones out of the chicken “like pulling tights off a woman” (Marco Pierre White), the very first moment when the sauce begins to thicken instead of fall apart – it was magic. And something else became apparent – I knew how to cook. In fact, I was damn good at it. I had spent so much time focused on the fear of failure that I had forgotten to be proud of what I could do, of what I was good at.
This all might seem insignificant and silly and you might be asking What’s the big deal? But trauma tells us everything is “the big deal” – every choice is meaningful, every mistake devastating. As survivors we are paralyzed by a desperate need for control after experiencing violence so deeply out of our control. We hold ourselves accountable for everything, no matter how small. It’s exhausting and unsustainable, and it permeates every part of our lives. After a lifetime of deprivation, I was finally looking into what could be a wild, unpredictable, enormously rewarding life. I found myself making pulled pork that fell apart with a fork, caramelized onions that turned that perfect shade of golden brown, and soft, melting caramels. I was finally letting go, getting my feet wet and my hands dirty, and taking risks. And things were turning out okay (better, actually).
I still have moments when I find myself at the cusp of something great and something mediocre, the risk folding knots in my stomach. The trauma wants me to say no, to stick to the path I know and hold on tightly to what is certain. But there is so much bravery when we let go, when we remember the risk is worth it, and when we remind ourselves we can always order pizza.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a person with short dark hair, smiling with their eyes closed, their head tilted toward the ceiling, their arms raised above their head. They are wearing a plaid scarf and a black shirt. Behind them are cooking tools hung on the wall. Source: Alessandro Valli]