In an excerpt from the anthology 'My First Popsicle,' Stephanie Danler writes about the healing power of cooking
Kaya Lee Berne for TIME
November 4, 2022 11:40 AM EDT

The New York City boxes came on a moving truck to the cottage in Laurel Canyon. Pomelo trees scraped the roof of the truck when it turned in, so it couldn’t pull all the way into the long drive. I helped two guys from the moving company carry my stuff the rest of the way up to a shed. These boxes had been in a storage unit in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for three years, since my divorce. I felt like I had been much younger when I packed them.

The first box I opened had sweaters in it. His and mine. I remember taping up that box and thinking that we would be right back. That we were separating, dismantling our home in a cold spring, but we would be unpacking this box before the next snow came. Surveying my things in the shed, I looked at my KitchenAid stand mixer, half-heartedly protected by plastic wrap gone loose. A box of antique Bundt pans, collected at flea markets. I opened another box that had KITCHEN written on the side. It was full of Mason jars. Or what had been Mason jars. They were pulverized glass at this point. It hurt afresh to see it all again. To remember my ex-husband and me circling the tiny Williamsburg apartment, packing it all up, drinking iced coffee after iced coffee, not knowing how to speak to each other. I still loved him. He still loved me. We wept constantly, without ceremony, in front of the movers. They avoided us, whispering to each other in Polish. Surely, we would be coming right back to each other. It wasn’t possible that there had been many snows since then, snowstorms when I hadn’t even thought of him, or that I had moved to a place unmarked by that kind of weather.

Most of these boxes were part of a kitchen. My marriage had revolved around food and wine. Our lives were spent in our respective restaurants where we worked the requisite 12-hour days, and our leisure time was spent in the restaurants of our friends. I opened another box and there was my ex-husband’s bourbon collection. I laughed. Rare releases of Blanton’s and WhistlePig rye, even a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle I had scavenged for his birthday. The storage unit where they’d been residing was not climate controlled. Was the whiskey still drinkable? Yes, we had packed them like idiots full of denial. How much of our lives had we wasted in that way?

For the seven years of our relationship we were what Laurie Colwin calls “domestic sensualists.” We ate for experience. We entertained frequently and ambitiously. We made cassoulet from scratch, including grinding the meat and stuffing the sausage casings. It took weeks. Pastas were kneaded, rolled, and cut; cheeses were tempered under mesh domes; slivers of truffles were slid under the skin of capons. We had a culinary book collection with rare cookbooks from Kitchen Arts & Letters and Bonnie Slotnick. My ex-husband brewed beer, and each season we pickled, dropping the Mason jars into boiling water. Jars of ramps, onions, and cucumbers lined up, throwing colored light. We changed glassware as we revolved our wines, moving from stemless aperitif-style glasses to slim white-wine glasses to Burgundy bowls. After dinner we often moved the dining table to the side of the room so we could dance.

Restaurants were New York City’s cutthroat sport. It seemed everyone was discovering the Jura wine region in France, or the salinity of Manzanilla sherry, or the pucker of fish sauce. That our passions were considered niche (at best) to the rest of the world didn’t bother us. Every discretionary penny was thrown into this search for pleasure. My discovery of the food world coincided with my marriage and became inseparable from it. That made it seem less like a graciously prolonged moment and more like the banquet that would always be my life.

When I left our apartment in Williamsburg—and it was my first home, really—I moved into a room in a Victorian town house in Bushwick. I had only a mattress, books, and a dining table as a desk. Two suitcases of clothes. The rest of it I locked away in the storage unit. Eight other people lived in this house. I rarely saw them or even heard them.

Regardless of the weather, my room had the powdery gray light of a storybook orphanage. I wore sandals in the shower. I could play music in my room only at certain hours. It was impossible not to feel that I had left a vibrant adulthood for an ashen version of myself at 22: broke, prickly with loneliness. No belongings, no footing. The kitchen in this formerly grand town house was a playground for mice and cockroaches. Only one of the roommates ever used it.

I stopped enjoying food. Wine felt flabby and desperate without the accompaniment. The act of changing out stemware came to stand in for the fraudulence of my married life. I had become a bourgeois mannequin, had taken to caring about the wrong things. Alone again, I was safest when caring about nothing. Take-out containers piled up inside my room until I got nervous that the kitchen mice would find them. Tuna salad from a bodega, eaten with Triscuits; jars of cornichons; Greek yogurt; round after round of toast. Fried rice and steamed vegetables I could get from a Chinese place for less than $10, which I could make last a week. Cooking is nearly always the cheaper option. Yet I did not cook in that house for a year. Not even an egg. It was a form of self-recrimination. Even the thought of these once-sacred rituals made me feel empty. I had stopped believing in their power.

Depression is always a taste to me. The tongue desiccated and parched, the oversteeped and forgotten tea, the tilting-toward-decay fizziness of sour grapes. An ambient and unspecific sense of death that keeps you from your senses. I lost food and accepted it. Though I quit cooking, I still walked to the Union Square Greenmarket in all seasons. Out of habit, I still checked out Lani’s Farm, Guy Jones, Keith’s, and still waved to the farmers I knew. On an unremarkable winter day I bought a shallot.

A smooth, lavender teardrop of a shallot.

It was a joke among my college friends that I couldn’t boil water for pasta. Maybe it was because my mother was a gifted cook who had gone to culinary school, or because we were estranged and I imagined myself nothing like her, or because I had been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old—but I came into my 20s completely dependent on others to feed me. That changed when I moved to New York City and started serving at Union Square Cafe. But I didn’t teach myself to cook because I was inspired. I did it because I fell in love. I had just started dating my future husband and we were planning a trip to Paris. We had a lengthy list of restaurants to hit, but we had rented an apartment with the idea that we would also go to the markets and cook at home. The fact that neither one of us cooked did not impede this fantasy. I assumed that my general knowledge of food would translate into a virtuoso performance in the kitchen. I assumed that by buying myself The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, reading it cover to cover, carting it over to Paris, I would, in a small but significant way, become Alice Waters vacationing in Paris with her love. The culinary results of that Paris trip were edible but not close to transcendent. I remember reading that I should skim the fat off a beef stew and not understanding the direction. Instead I stirred as hard as I could so that fat stopped collecting on the top.

But one of the simpler recipes I did manage to execute in Paris was a shallot vinaigrette. While the vinaigrette came out just good enough the first time, it was still exciting: Why would anyone buy salad dressing if they could make this? In the years to come I always had a jar of it in the fridge. It went on lettuces, on rice and farro, on steamed kale, on baked potatoes and omelets, on one hundred avocados.

In addition to a finely chopped shallot, the recipe calls for vinegar and oil. The key to the recipe—which isn’t really a recipe as much as a gesture—is time. That means maceration. Leave the shallots and the acid alone together for an hour. The shallots will flush and plump. They will lose their rawness to the vinegar. They become their own element, not simply an accompaniment.

Read More: The Truth About Home Cooking

Shallot vinaigrette was the first thing I made in my transient Bushwick kitchen. It needed something to be spooned over. And so I made something to spoon it over. It did not feel like an achievement. It felt like eating, an urge temporarily satiated. But seeing the leftovers in a jar in the fridge begged me to make something else. I bought eggs and butter. I bought the good sourdough and the leftover ends of expensive cheeses: gouda, comté, triple crèmes. Dried lentils. Cans of cannellini beans, rinsed, splashed with olive oil, just heated through. I bought a head of Little Gem lettuce and a watermelon radish. Because I had the radish and the vinegar, why not do a quick pickle of it? It wasn’t exactly a triumph over dark forces: the symphony swelling, me throwing back the heavy drapes to face the sunlight. But this is how I started over. I did not have my own plates or mugs; I had my own jar of vinaigrette.

Standing in the Laurel Canyon shed with my mangled boxes, just about as far as I could get from Brooklyn, I had so much sympathy for the idiots who packed them. That sympathy made it impossible to separate my life into organized compartments—my phases, my lovers, my sublets. I don’t believe anymore that I was one person in my marriage and another when it was over, that those selves were disparate and unrepeatable. The halcyon meals of the marriage, its disappearance, and leaving New York City—it was all a wash of loss and creation. The truth is that even within that frenzy of epicurean highs, there were the seeds of our collapse. There was our penchant for drinking too much, our delirious avoidance of conflict, my fear of vulnerability, and my lust for all sorts of lives outside of matrimony. It was—much like the present moment—both paradisaical and cautionary. “The good news,” a friend said to me, “is that you did it once. You know you can do it again.” She meant making a home, but of course when it landed on me, it was about love.

I do not live in Williamsburg or Bushwick or even Laurel Canyon anymore. There are things from my first marriage that I’ve carried with me and have no idea what to do with. But I did cook again. I unpacked the kitchen boxes and started calling those things mine instead of ours.

Writer Stephanie Danler at her former home in Laurel Canyon (Courtesy of Stephanie Danler)
Writer Stephanie Danler at her former home in Laurel Canyon
Courtesy of Stephanie Danler

Excerpted from My First Popsicle: An Anthology of Food and Feelings, edited by Zosia Mamet and published by Penguin Books.

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