Suffering is not the price of cooking

14.September 2021

My friend has just produced another beautiful meal. She improvised it from a landscape of memory, imagination, and the family farm. She sent me to the garden for a sweet chili and to the other kitchen for a sieve. She moved the napkins and glasses closer to the plates so their would be more room for a feast of platters in the middle of the table. She paid someone to iron the tablecloths. She chased every drip from the edge of every plate. When she approached the table, pride in both hands, her smile melted the whole bucket of ice.

Her guests oohed, ahhed, took photos and gushed compliments. We joked that they returned the plates "already clean".

She turned from the table and walked back to the kitchen. It looked, as is to be expected at this point in the service, as if a landslide had passed through. Discarded containers and wrappers and oven dishes and tea towels and serving spoons had been pushed aside for plating. Items pulled from the pantry and not yet returned balanced precariously on hastily gathered bowls from the first course. A lemon, a paring knife, and half a cookie languished next to a coffee, prepared and forgotten in the scramble.

As the guests lingered over spilled sugar, pizza crusts, and wine, we faced the sink.

I longed to drag her aside. To give her a glass of wine and retrieve a plate of the best she had made from a hidden place in the cupboard. But it was not my kitchen. And her way is to do penance for the joy of cooking for people.

She will now hand-wash all the muck from the cooking pans and the guests' dishes.

I would put it all –including the oven pans– directly into the dishwasher, running three loads if necessary, leaving it stacked dirty until the turn came.

Her excuse –and it's a common one– is that the dishwasher won't get things clean, or that the cooking pans take up too much space there, but I think this is an evasion of the celebration. It is a response to the void of having done something well. When no financial instrument is sufficient and there is nothing else to receive, the material at hand for injecting any sensation into that terrible void is to induce suffering with more and worse work.

The drama triangle is a game people play in relationships when they want intimacy but don't know how to create it. They hop around between roles that trigger intensity: victim, persecutor, rescuer.

Victory dripping from her serving spoon, what is she to do? Does anyone really know what she has given them? Does anyone really care? Is the fleeting pleasure of a meal eaten while talking about something else worth the energy of her life? The intensity of congealed fat and scrubbing and dirty water and the smell of industrial cleaners displaces this unanswered yearning.

In the morning, the sink is clean and I put the dishes away. I gather discarded packaging and return supplies to the cupboards, but there's no space to clear the counters. She arrives to make another feast in the intersection of overbuying unstackable heart-shaped bowls and underinvesting in kitchen organization, balances a bowl on the edge of a pan of leftovers, and starts cracking eggs into it. I want to give her a marble pastry table. I hand her the sugar.