There is a poem in my kitchen, propped up between the bowl of bananas and the backsplash. It was written by a friend. She brought it over one Sunday to read aloud in my living room, and I found it so weird and beautiful that I snuck the paper and kept it.
The poem is about oysters and closeness, and there is one line I like particularly:
…Moth larva is a delicacy, but
no amount of black mama seasoning can rush beatification, acquire
me a taste for you when how imprecise the language of desire.
“How imprecise the language of desire.
I look at this when I’m blinking awake in the first moments of the day, waiting for the water to boil, and then again while wiping down the countertops by lamplight one more time before sleep.
The language of cooking is very precise. “Slice three leeks lengthwise and then slice them in the other direction until you have a pile of half moons. Sauté them in a tablespoon of butter until they are translucent, but don’t let them brown.”
Baking is even more exacting: “Sift together 2 ¼ cups of whole wheat flour and 2 ¾ cups of white flour. Create two wells in the flour and into one deposit two teaspoons of salt; into the other, two teaspoons of yeast. Pour 1 ½ cups of water over everything and stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a shaggy dough.” A wooden spoon.
Precision prevents disaster. It makes up for variability. They say that the same bread recipe followed to the letter in two different kitchens produces two different loaves, and it’s true. (“Why are your cookies prettier?” my mother wants to know.) The wording is meticulous and the instructions exhaustive because of all the things that cannot be perfectly controlled, like the humidity of your oven or the enthusiasm of the yeast. The gram measurements and demands to sift not scoop are a defense against the world’s chaos, and a paltry one, but without them the bread may never materialize, risen and pale goldish, as desired. It may fall irretrievably in the baking.
The alchemy of desire is much harder to master, its falls more tragic. And yet our language for it is maddeningly woolly. The great poets have striven for clarity here but most of us are doomed, in our mimetic hearts, to use words picked up from books and the movies and our parents. “I love you,” or “Your eyes are an ocean,” or “I want to take you home and do terrible things to you.”
If we were to say what we really meant, instead of the phrases that come to mind out of sheer cultural saturation, what conversations would rise in bedrooms and train stations and the dairy aisle of the supermarket?
I went to bed once with one of my closest friends, someone I’ve spent hundreds of hours confiding in, arguing with, reading aloud to. We were blessed with a decade of unusually forthright communication before we slept together, but it didn’t matter. I love you we knew how to say, and then we ran into trouble.
“I like the way you taste,” he said, kissing me. He might have been sincere, but I flinched— it sounded like a line from a bad porno. But I cared for him and what needed expressing was jumbled and caught between my eyes and my mouth so I said the only thing I could think of:
“That’s fucking hot.”
How imprecise the language of desire.
There is a mysticism to baking, and that is why I have always preferred it to cooking. The precision of the instructions is especially critical in baking because there is no opportunity to correct errors once the thing is in the oven. You measure (don’t scoop the flour with the measuring cup! Spoon it in lightly and level it gently with the back of a knife); and mix (only until the ingredients are just combined); and whip (until soft peaks form, whatever that means); and you do not eyeball it or skip steps because this part is all you have. You follow directions to the letter, deliver your efforts to the oven and say a prayer. Once the door is closed and the timer is set, the future is out of your hands. If the execution was perfect, the bread will emerge with a toothsome crust and a gentle crumb, like an act of some benevolent god.
When I was in high school, I thought this was a good metaphor for romance. Find the right combination of qualities, looks, and values, say the right words, propose with the right diamond, walk the aisle in the right white dress and a beautiful future will materialize, dotted with golden retrievers named Scooter and biannual trips to a chalet in Lake Tahoe.
The thrill of baking, though, is how the devil gets in. You can do everything as written and by greeted by a mess. I shout when this happens in my kitchen, but really I love it. It drives me back to the page. Did my notion of “fold gently” not match Nigella Lawson’s? Were the chilled egg whites not quite chilled enough? The fissures and failures of the language reveal themselves in these moments, and they are immense. There is nothing to do but begin again and believe that this time I’ll open the oven door to a miracle.
The first time someone I loved told me he loved me, I was so elated my very skin could have flown off, and the walls off the dingy little basement bar we were in, and the leaves off the trees, and everything off of everything, because in those words I recognized total mutuality and thus total union and therefore the end of the need for skins or walls or trappings or containments of any kind. Barthes writes about the lover’s capacity for s’abimation, or engulfment, the “outburst of annihilation” that overtakes your spirit when great love or desire is fulfilled. That first I love you was s’abimation.
But as time passed, those three words began to have the opposite effect when he said them. They grew opaque. I learned the natural tendency to say I love you when one means other things, like
Don’t be mad at me
I miss you
Your ugly feet make me happy, the way they poke out from the covers
Thank you for remembering to get granola
You are my favorite person in the world to talk to
I can’t bear the thought that I ever didn’t know your face
I’m thinking of leaving, and it scares me
I would still choose you
This morning I couldn’t believe I ever chose you, but I just remembered
So over the span of years his I love yous started to provoke in me a kind of desperate fury. What do you mean by that, I wanted to ask. What are you saying to me? The words, though I needed them to be true, became a barrier I couldn’t cross, a reminder of our mutual impenetrability. Because the feeling couldn’t be articulated more vividly, I stopped believing it existed vividly. When I tried to explain this problem, I failed: he didn’t understand what was wrong.
Cooking’s language has a structure, same as baking, but it allows for much more whimsy and chaos. There are several different ways to slice an onion, and when caramelizing the slivers you throw in “a few dashes” of salt and “a splash or two” of white vinegar. Traditionally onions caramelize in a haze of low heat and “occasional” stirring, but if time is of the essence you can turn up the burner and tip in drips of water to prevent scorching. There’s risk involved in this maneuver and it throws off the salt content, but you “adjust to taste.” You “eyeball” it.
That same boyfriend was incredibly uncomfortable with this kind of freedom in cooking. He wanted to know in minutes how long he needed to cook the eggplant and when I would shrug and say, “I dunno… until it looks soft and kind of golden,” this frustrated him. Once, confronting my resolute vagueness, he lost his temper and called me “cavalier.” He seemed terrified that he might make some catastrophic, irreversible mistake. Like what, I always wondered. What disaster could you possibly cause while softening eggplant?
This fear is a feeling I do not recognize in the kitchen. Even when the recipe has gaps or you misinterpret it, there’s always an opportunity to adjust, salvage and – if you’ve really wrecked things– throw the whole meal down the disposal and order takeout. If you leave the eggplant in the pan for five minutes too long, the stir-fry won’t suffer noticeably. What gives me the shakes is the slipperier language of wanting, the language of needing, and the ruining power of its misconstruction.
I might have known, had I paid attention to the way we didn’t need the same things from each other’s words in the kitchen or outside it.
There’s nothing quite like the intimacy of knowing a dish so well that its recipe becomes irrelevant. This frees you to play— exchanging onions for shallots or white flour for whole wheat, finding the plasticity of the flavors, learning to make it yours. You win this comfort through failure, by screwing up repeatedly and paying attention —looking for the moment when the words failed you, or where you failed them— and then screwing up differently and paying attention again, and on and on until you are at once fully aware that screw ups are inevitable and nevertheless willing to believe that you will get it right on your own. It is a delicious moment, when you leave the language behind. Unhooked from the words on the page the tongue has more time for tasting, and talking.
Someone dropped by unexpectedly for dinner not long ago, and perched long-limbed on a stool in my kitchen while I defrosted a loaf of bread and tossed peas and walnuts and garlic in the food processor for pesto. He asked about my day, and what I was reading, and I reached behind the bananas for the sheaf of poems.
“Read that one,” I said.
He did, and when he was done he looked up at me for several seconds and smiled.
“This is going to sound stupid,” he said haltingly, “But it makes me really happy, sitting in your kitchen watching you make dinner. It’s just…nice.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “It is nice.” We let the word rise in the warmth of the kitchen for a moment, looking at each other, and then it was time to slice the bread.