The following is an excerpt from Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, an anthology edited by Natalie Eve Garrett. Used with permission of Black Balloon Publishing.
My friend Sarah and I moved to California when I was twenty-one. We’d both come directly from college, deciding to try living as far from our previous city — Washington, D.C.— as we possibly could. D.C. was muggy and conservative and full of mosquitoes and politicians, and our little apartment on the Oakland/Berkeley border was free of all of those things. We grew basil in the alley behind the kitchen, and then we killed some flowers and succulents and eventually the basil, too.
Sarah taught me to make alfredo from scratch, running crushed garlic through a slick of butter and sprinkling flour into the pan. The smell of it—the warmth of the garlic, the slow, browning burble of the butter—was practically tangible; it felt like it could lift me up from the ground like the scent of pie cooling on a windowsill in an old-timey cartoon. I had never seen anyone make alfredo from scratch. In fact, I don’t think I realized alfredo could be made from scratch, that it didn’t spontaneously manifest in jars in the supermarket.
She made other things, too: tortellini soup, beautiful salads, stir-fry, all of which she shared with me. She shared everything; she was so lovely and kind and generous it made my teeth hurt. I think I loved her, a little. I tried to repay her in kind, but then nearly destroyed the kitchen making frozen pot stickers—I dropped water into the hot oil and a column of flame erupted from the pan. I didn’t burn down the apartment, but only just. The pot stickers were scorched, but edible. Afterward, I had to Google my mistake, which I truly did not understand.
Half a year into this new life, I met a chef who was struggling financially and moving back in with his parents in the Midwest. He invited me to his apartment. He was tall and sad and sweet and showed me what he was giving away with his hands shoved deep into his pockets. I took most of it: giant pickle jars filled with endless varieties of bougie and exotic flours; herbs and spices; huge stock pots; a set of knives. I was astonished at the size of my windfall. I tried to offer him money. “I’m just happy someone will use it,” he said, looking every bit the part of a forlorn fairy godmother.
My boyfriend and I cooked together, but when I probe my memory for what we made I can’t conjure up anything, as if our breakup—and there was a breakup, a terrible and humiliating first heartbreak that I was sure would kill me dead— wiped the meals away. Dear friends came to my house, helped me clean up, dribbled drops of Rescue Remedy into tall glasses of water, fed me because I couldn’t remember how to feed myself. Mourning, I bought Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs samples, called imps, and spent my days watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and reviewing the perfumes on my LiveJournal and barely eating anything at all.
When I returned to my body, I threw my energy into cooking. The dear friends who’d helped me pick up my life cooked for me in their sunny San Francisco condo, and I imitated their meals until I began to learn. I looked up recipes on the inter net. I practiced. It helped that I was a thirty-second walk from the legend ary Berkeley Bowl, whose heaps of pro duce and plenty re mains the only thing I miss about the Bay Area. I fed myself like a woman who needed to love the world again. I made fresh lo mein tossed with sautéed broccolini, soy sauce, ginger, sriracha; corn tortillas warmed in a pan and loaded with warmed and spiced refried beans, chunks of creamy avocado, twists of lime; elaborate salads with golden beets and goat cheese and walnuts, tossed with goddess dressing and robust, garlicky croutons. I bought produce I didn’t know how to cook or eat. Googled it. Found new obsessions, spit others into the sink. Smelled the durian with longing—the scent incredible to me, overly sweet and meaty—but never could afford to buy one. I bought salad mixes with edible flowers from the farmers market and stood over the counter in my cottage’s kitchen, nibbling at the petals like I imagined a snail would. The meals were overwhelmingly vegetarian—my ex-boyfriend was a vegetarian, the son of Seventh-day Adventists, and I’d gotten used to it. I learned to like wine. At least, I learned to like two-dollar bottles from Trader Joe’s, which was all I could afford.
But I wanted to get out of California. I hated my job, I hated the Bay Area, I hated my life. I visited a grad school in Texas and came back making the sandwich my host had made for me: an over-easy egg on toasted English muffin with a smear of mustard and mayonnaise, topped in melted sharp cheddar cheese, the egg arranged so the hot yolk would ooze and you could drag the sandwich through itself like a medieval torture technique.
I didn’t choose that grad school, though. I went to Iowa instead. There, my roommate John and I made ridiculous foods. He fermented his own sauerkraut and made jam-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches using Eggo waffles as the bread. We made soups and chicken dishes and pasta and embraced the smorgasbord, hunched over a table of miscellaneous pleasures like urchin children. At the edge of town, I went to people’s houses and snipped green beans from their vines and once filled an entire garbage bag with unwanted basil and made a massive supply of pesto that lasted the whole winter. I briefly lived with a woman who made me miserable but introduced to me to tomato-eggplant pasta with pine nuts and Mediterranean-style couscous and roasted guinea hen and a feta peppercorn dip that gave me tremendous farts.
I closed out the decade with my now-wife, Val. She loves to cook with me and for me and I for and with her. She is excellent at turning random scraps of leftovers into something interesting. “This is a Val dish,” she’ll say, and it always means, This could be anything, but I think it’s going to be pretty good; also, the kitchen is now a disaster. I prefer the order of recipes, the serene logic of them. I try to clean as I go. That’s just how it is. We’re not in our twenties anymore.
In The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett quipped: “He’d noticed that sex bore some resemblance to cookery: it fascinated people, they sometimes bought books full of complicated recipes and interesting pictures, and sometimes when they were really hungry they created vast banquets in their imagination—but at the end of the day they’d settle quite happily for egg and chips, if it was well done and maybe had a slice of tomato.”
I have always loved a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. It was something my mother kept on hand in case she was too tired to cook, or if she needed us to feed each other. It was the first thing I learned how to make on my own; at least, the first thing that had ingredients and steps, and didn’t just need to be heated up. I have never stopped making it; even in between my increasingly sophisticated culinary experiments, I always have one or two boxes in the cupboard, for emergencies of the body and spirit.
In this recipe, the addition of tomato soup, garlic powder, and black pepper gets the dish closer to another comfort food of mine: SpaghettiOs. It is creamy and cheesy and acidic and peppery. Tense peas give you tiny bursts of sweetness, and the frozen ones are just as good as fresh for this purpose; sliced-up hot dogs give you chunks of salt, though of course vegetarians can forgo the hot dogs. (I have never liked tofu dogs and I don’t recommend them. I always thought that hot dogs would be the easiest meat to reproduce for herbivores—after all, they bear zero resemblance to the creature of their origins—but I have yet to find a decent substitute with that same pleasant, rubbery give and salty body.) You can substitute the frozen peas with frozen corn in a pinch, but it’s not as good.
This is a thing I make for myself when I’m sad or sick or I’ve had a terrible day. It’s also endlessly adaptable and can technically all be made in a single pan if you want to minimize cleanup. I hope it brings you some measure of nostalgia and comfort.
You-Are-Ten-and-Tender-and-Can-Only- Make-This-One-Thing and Cheese
box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, or equivalent (I prefer the pasta shapes in this order: shells, special-edition shapes, spirals; the macaroni version is by far the worst and should be avoided at all costs)
hot dogs (optional)
Prepare the macaroni and cheese as you would normally: boil the water, add the pasta. Separately, heat a small saucepan with a small amount of tomato soup. (If you are adding hot dogs and peas, you can cook them with the pasta or with the soup.) When the noodles are tender, drain the water, and then whisk butter in the mess of them until melted. Add the powdered cheese. Instead of adding milk to dissolve the powder, add the tomato soup to desired taste and texture—I like mine slightly soupy. If you add hot dogs, slice them into little rounds before stirring them in. Add freshly cracked black pepper and garlic powder to taste. Don’t add salt—it’s got plenty of salt already. Serve in a bowl; eat hot. Think about your past self with compassion. She got you here, after all.
Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, an anthology edited by Natalie Eve Garrett. Used with permission of Black Balloon Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Natalie Eve Garrett.