To document our lives—the places we've been, the people we've known, the children we've raised, the parties we've attended, the national parks graced with our presence—most of us keep (or at least wish we had kept) photo albums, scrapbooks, and videos. Looking back through them helps us remember who we were—and see who we are. But lately, I've been thinking that the story of our lives is told as much by what we cook and eat as by anything else. Imagine if you made an autobiographical cookbook. Along with the development of your eating habits, wouldn't it also track the progress of your soul?
I've tried to envisage the chapters of my own life's cookbook, and there's a changing self behind those recipes, all right. But a thread of continuity also emerges, a basic truth about what nourishes me that I seemingly have known all along. Even so, my path has been one of twists and turns, many pans of hot oil and blenders full of ice, much spilled salt, drizzled honey, and crushed tomatoes.
My mother was not much of a cook, so I don't have too many misty memories of baking cookies at her side or of us rolling out piecrusts in matching gingham aprons. In fact, I don't recall doing much cooking beyond little cakes in my Easy-Bake Oven until I was about 12.
Adolescence for me was marked not just by existential despair but also by a heartfelt moral conversion to vegetarianism. Left to my own devices by my blithely carnivorous mom, I developed a single signature recipe that involved sautéing a whole bunch of vegetables and then adding raisins, tomato sauce, and many incompatible spices. It was disgusting, but I proudly ate it every day. By eating different food, I was proclaiming my essential difference, my hunger for something more original and more fulfilling than suburbia had to offer. This wasn't just a stir-fry, it was a personal credo.
At about the same time, I read Ram Dass's classic book, Be Here Now, and became interested in yoga. After searching our local Yellow Pages in vain for a listing for yoga, I wrote to an address in the back of Ram Dass's book; that very summer, I was off to Taos, New Mexico, for a two-week intensive in yoga and meditation.
Hippie in the Kitchen
By the time I made it to college, I was Little Miss Alternative Lifestyle. The vegetarian cooperative house I lived in supplied much new fodder for my life's cookbook. A long shelf in our high-ceilinged, pale yellow kitchen housed spattered copies of The Vegetarian Epicure, Moosewood Cookbook, and Diet for a Small Planet. As I took my turn among the 22 of us making bean soups, spinach quiches, and tofu turkeys, the fundamentals of vegetarian cooking took hold. The fundamentals of psychedelic drugs, Marxism, and astrology took hold too, though none of those has held my attention as long as a recipe I discovered for vegetarian chili made from bulgur wheat and V8 juice.
The Epicurean '80s
No drastic change from my teens, my 20s were years of much experimentation: I lived in many places, knew many people, imbibed many substances. Midway through, I "settled down" by marrying a bartender named Tony I'd met during Mardi Gras. The barbecued shrimp of our New Orleans courtship was followed by the gold mine of Italian recipes from my new mother-in-law. Meat was back on the menu as I followed her instructions for making stromboli with thin-sliced salami, and marinara sauce with Italian sausage and meatballs.
Tony and I discovered the distraction of pesto that year—I think 1983 was The Year of Pesto for many of our kind—and I had the great inspiration to make it for his family when we visited over Christmas. We shopped for the perfect basil, Romano cheese, nuts, and pasta at no less than Dean & Deluca in New York, then drove to his parents' place in the Poconos with our supplies in hand. I can't say his family hated the pesto. I think they liked it, more or less. But none of them could believe that I viewed it, served over pasta and with a little salad, as a meal. As dinner, for God's sake. They exchanged glances, got up, and pulled out the cold cuts.
Ah, well. They could have their braciola (and it was really good braciola, I have to admit). I was busy aspiring to further Yuppiness in the dove-gray kitchenette of our new little condo, trying recipes from Bon Appétit and the New York Times. On the plus side, I learned to make Thai-style coconut-milk-and-lemongrass soup. On the minus side, I wasted a week doing some obscure procedure with shaved fresh pumpkin that produced an absolutely inedible Thanksgiving pie.
Return of the Brown Rice
That part of my young married life, the spanakopita-and-blender-drinks chapter, came to an end for a couple of reasons. One was that Tony and I started trying to have children. I became pregnant and developed an obsession with healthy eating, eschewing alcohol, preservatives, caffeine, and anything ever rumored to have a negative effect on a fetus.
But something terrible happened anyway: My first pregnancy resulted in an unexplained full-term stillbirth. After coming home from the hospital, I lay in bed in the dark for days on end, thinking I would never move again or even want to. All that healthy living now seemed pathetic to me in its hopefulness.
Then a woman I hardly knew brought me a Styrofoam take-out tray of some food I barely recognized, some mishmash of yellow, dark green, and orange foods. It was a macrobiotic lunch, she said, from the nearby East-West Center. It might as well have been a blue plate special from the planet Venus. But she sat there staring at me, so finally I ate it. And felt a surge of unexpected strength, physical well-being, even aliveness.
That food made me feel better; there was no doubt about it. I started to believe there was something magical, or at least something right, about the grains and beans and greens of the macrobiotic diet. I went through my next two successful pregnancies and years of nursing my sons while eating mostly macrobiotic foods.
Then things took a seriously wrong turn again. My husband, diagnosed with aids in 1985, began a protracted, rough decline that ended with his death in 1994. Though it wasn't that long ago, Western medicine had very little to offer then. Many pill bottles but no relief or cure.
So I did what I could: stewed more azuki beans and steamed more kale.
Single Motherhood and Dinner from a Box
Tony died when our two sons were four and six years old, and suddenly, soaking dried beans just seemed like too much trouble. I could barely find the time or will to open a box of Jell-O, much less make fruit-juice kanten. Though my kids had been raised on sweet potatoes, lentil burgers, and millet, they seemed more than happy with our new friends, Hamburger Helper and ramen noodles. But it wasn't all bad; I sometimes lethargically added chopped-up tofu to the soup. Luckily, our hometown (Austin, Texas) was nothing if not restaurant heaven. We ate out a lot.
The most recent chapter of my cookbook opened five years ago, when I fell in love, remarried, became a stepmom, and moved across the country to a rural part of Pennsylvania. I had a hard time getting used to my new environment, which was a white-bread-and-chicken-potpie kind of place, but once I found a health food store, a community-supported farm, and a yoga teacher, I was on my way back to both a way of eating and a way of living that felt right to me.
This chapter includes foods like homemade breads, breakfast cereals, and soups; veggie sushi; stir-fries; and salads. Because we are in the middle of nowhere, I cook all the time, and I have my old Moosewood Cookbook out a lot. (Actually, there's a new edition, in which Mollie Katzen has taken the three cups of ricotta and two cups of sour cream out of all of those '70s recipes.) My 15-year-old football-playing son has a steak fetish, but to my delight, my teenage stepdaughter became a vegetarian a couple of years ago, and now there's someone to love my falafel and my tofu jambalaya.
While I was working on this story, a friend happened to ask me how long I'd been doing yoga. I thought for a moment and said, "Well, all my life really. Since I was a teenager."
After I got off the phone, that answer stuck in my head. All my life. I've been doing yoga all my life, and I've been learning how to cook vegetables and grains all my life too. These practices are second nature to me, and even though there have been times when I moved far away from them, I have always come back, seeking balance and healing.
Tonight, I will cook a stir-fry for my family, though it'll be a little different from the recipe I invented when I was 12. Instead of having tomato sauce and raisins, it will be flavored with tamari and chili paste. It will be prepared in a wok, will be served over brown rice, and will no doubt show the effects of 33 years of cooking experience.
However, it still won't be just a plate of vegetables—it will be a personal credo.
National Public Radio commentator Marion Winik is the author of Telling and First Comes Love. She lives in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Crispin Sartwell, and a passel of kids ages three to 16.