The Year in Dinner

On keeping your loved ones fed, whether they like it or not.

Still from "Eraserhead"

What was important to us in 2014? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the big issues that reverberated quietly and the small moments that rang loudly over the last year.  

My girlfriend and I have a system. I get up at god o'clock every morning to walk our troubled dog, then give him his food and whatever medication he needs that week to combat the deleterious effects of whatever piece of refuse he stupidly consumed the week before. I take a shower, then feel the cold hands of time wrap around my throat as I briefly morph into my father while trying to wake her up ("Hey. Hey. ... Hey. It's seven-thirty." "I know." "I know you know. I'm just saying. It's seven-thirty. Hey. ... Hey. It's almost eight o'clock. Hey. ... Hey"). Eventually, we both go to work. Around 2:30, I send her a message asking what she feels like for dinner. "Dicks," she responds immediately. Or "butts." Or, sometimes, "farts." There are no further replies. I turn to look out the window, inhale deeply, sigh audibly, then open a new tab and start searching for a recipe.

This has become our shorthand for her giving me carte blanche. And I'm glad for it. I love cooking. Some day, I might even be good at it.

I make dinner every night while my girlfriend takes our idiot dog on his extended evening walk. When we started dating, our schedules were erratic; the time we actually got to spend together was rare, felt stolen. Four and a half years later, we've both settled into nine-to-fives. We see a lot of each other these days, which is the goal, of course—all the science books I've read say that enjoying hearing your partner's voice and looking at their face tend to be signs of a healthy relationship—but these end-of-day decompression periods are restorative and necessary. It's a mental block for me: even if nothing went wrong that day, the idea of not having time to myself when I get home makes me edgy. Luckily, all the science books I've read say that this is a good and cool way to act and not at all indicative of greater antisocial tendencies. Also, it's when I get to listen to podcasts. The only reason I'm caught up on Bullseye or Harmontown or Do You Like Prince Movies? is because I am unpleasant to be around at six o'clock.

Lately I've been making garlic shrimp with habanero-lime quinoa once a week or so. I get into grooves; they make me seem and feel more competent than I really am. I'm not even mad when my girlfriend is surprised at how well an ambitious-sounding meal turns out—I am, too. But this is much more a testament to my ability to follow instructions than it is a sign of any real aptitude. I know what smoked paprika is, and I know what it tastes like, but I have no fucking idea how to use it unless someone tells when and how much. This is not an improvisational exercise. I'm not painting a Pollack or playing jazz drums when I cook. I'm building a shed. Out of Lego.

But it's still rewarding. You work on the Internet all day, trying and sometimes struggling to attach meaning and value to efforts that can seem inherently ephemeral and intangible, and it's nice to come home and actually produce something, the value of which is self-evident: this is literally the thing that will keep you from going hungry. Do it well enough, and it's something for you and your loved ones to actually look forward to, but at the very least, it is necessary. This is essential. You are helping people survive.

I realize this is a completely preposterous and privileged position to attach to my ability to follow a recipe for kale and potato and turkey sausage soup. My family was not well-off, and my mom did not enjoy cooking—it was just another fucking thing she had to do between working as many jobs as possible to get by and raising three dumb boys. Her specialty—and by "specialty" I mean "thing she was consistently able to afford and tolerate"—was chicken, which she would make nine or ten nights a week. Sometimes it was Shake'N Bake; usually it was just bake. It wasn't even the boneless and skinless kind. There was gristle. We would complain. She did not give a shit. She was keeping us alive. I've turned what was one of the unfortunate rigors of her existence into a low-risk, high-reward activity where the inevitable upshot is me feeling undeservedly capable and decent about myself. Down with the bourgeoisie, and start with me.

I can tell when my girlfriend doesn't like something I've made. Usually she tries to be diplomatic about it, finds some way to try to couch her disapproval—the culinary equivalent of, "Sorry, I'm just tired today." I don't blame her; I'm not very good at this. I'm going to over-salt something, or use a criminal amount of cumin, or shortsightedly forgo our normal afternoon overtures and make a chickpea curry when she already had Indian for lunch and what she really wants for dinner is butts. If I've learned anything, it's how to make the best of my thoughtlessness and my fuck-ups. You can repurpose. You can throw away a side. You can make a stew. You can toss it in the fridge and keep it cool until you know what to do with it. You botched this one, but it's okay, it's all right, it's fine. Nobody is going to go hungry. You can be better. Nothing is unsalvageable.