After a while, I stopped working and moved to a house in the country. A house in the country comes with a country kitchen, and that surely would get me cooking. Not so fast. The vegetable garden we inherited (“Maybe you could open a roadside stand,” my friends humorously suggested), I transformed into a rose garden. I gardened like crazy, I hauled logs, I cleaned out underbrush in the woods. But when I came inside, I would open the refrigerator, and if there wasn’t a meal on a plate, all I saw was emptiness. Whatever objects were in there didn’t add up to food to me.
Then one day I saw the movie Julie & Julia, and it left me wanting to en croûte anything in my path. I read a recipe from a magazine all the way through. I read the instructions, I read the list of ingredients (I actually recognized all the items—no foreign things with an asterisk indicating you have to buy them at a specialty store), and I thought, for the first time in my life, I can make this. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, even said I could: She kept saying, “How easy is that?” I still didn’t make the recipe; I just looked at it—the way I never did the exercises on Jane Fonda’s videos but just watched her, my mouth hanging open. And then a friend I’d made in the country was having a birthday. She’s a vegetarian, and the recipe I’d read all the way through was for carrot soufflé. I added pecan Brussels sprouts (six ingredients, two of which are salt and pepper!). Then I read a recipe for pumpkin roulade; the only fancy thing it mentioned was parchment paper, and lo and behold, I had a dusty, unopened box of parchment paper. I felt it was a sign.
I rewrote the list of things I had to buy at the grocery store about five times. I got into the car as if I were going to a hanging. My hands were damp; my heart was palpitating. I understood for the first time how people must feel when they are scared of public speaking (about which I am curiously fearless—just so you know there is something I can do). I patted down my jacket a couple of times, making sure the grocery list was there. My heart leaped three times before I made it to the store, certain I didn’t have the list on me. I clutched it in my hand as I crossed the parking lot. I got a cart. Once inside, I was surrounded by women who were tossing items into their carts like beanbags. They were pros; I was not. I didn’t even know the aisles. I moved slowly, an irritant to the careening carts around me, while I searched for ingredients. I got hung up on the pumpkin; Ina said it was to be not pumpkin filling but pumpkin something else. That took me about three minutes to analyze. And I needed pecans, but the sign said the nuts in the bin were walnuts. They didn’t look like walnuts. But were they pecans? To this day I don’t know. I bought nuts. When I got home, seriously sweaty, I laid out all the ingredients, checking them twice; I got out the measuring cups, the mixer, the bowls. My husband had counseled that if I got everything out, I would feel more in control (code: not in a panic). I put on an apron. I felt like the wife on Mad Men. I broke open the first egg.
And at the age of 58, I made my first meal. Really, I made two sides and a dessert; the rest I ordered from a fancy food shop. My plan was not to put myself completely over the edge with beginner’s anxiety—the birthday guests shouldn’t have had to go hungry if I blew it. Here was the small miracle: The food I made was not only edible but actually good. Even if it hadn’t been good, I was not going to apologize. That’s what Julia said: Never apologize. The smells in the kitchen, the pot holders thrown on the counter, the bowls everywhere, the friends who arrived to what I would earlier have called a mess but now saw as an iconic domestic tableau—and I, for the first time in my life, was in the middle of it. I understood, finally understood, what people mean when they say the kitchen is the heart of the home.