Stoveside Self-Discovery

It’s not that I don’t have fond food memories from childhood, it’s that the moments were inconsequential … I completely took them for granted. Like most Southern matriarchs, my grandmothers threw down in the kitchen — massive pots of gumbo on Christmas; ornate Thanksgiving spreads that always tested the counters’ perimeters; sickly sweet lemonade paired with tea cakes during hot Texas summers. I wish my affinity for home-cooking was linked to these memories, but the truth is that my eventual love affair with the kitchen possesses origins that are rooted in tragedy.

You see, I was an incredibly picky eater as a kid, but my parents never pushed or made me feel ashamed. My mom hated cooking … so it just worked. To this day, I can only remember four consistent dishes in my mom’s arsenal — Baked Chicken, Spaghetti (the Black people kind lol), Eggs & Rice (which is still a favorite comfort food of mine), and a Peach Dump Cake that she trotted out for special occasions. While I wasn’t smitten with food IRL, somehow I fell in love with stations like the Food Network. I still have the worst vision from sitting with my eyeballs glued to the screen night after night, watching Emeril Lagasse yell “BAM” to his adoring audience before bedtime. I didn’t envy the meals being shown by the network’s chefs, and it never crossed my mind to try out the recipes. Looking back, I think I honed in on the magic of food from an early age. Its power to — as cliché as it sounds — bring people together, while creating something out of nothing.

Eventually, my mom and I began watching the Food Network together. Maybe she wanted to start sharpening her cooking skills; or perhaps it was simply a method to spend uninterrupted time with me? I never questioned her reasoning back then, but self reflection always brings questions. In this case, my mom and I’s Food Network dates were cut short by ovarian cancer. It wasn’t long before my mom’s courageous battle with an ugly disease ended with her passing away during my senior year of high school … and soon, the small joy that food brought me died with her. Years passed. The Food Network stayed on my screen, but my aversion for the kitchen spiraled as quickly as my grief. Grief morphed into anger. Anger morphed into anxiety. Anxiety morphed into a slew of painful digestive issues that could ironically only be solved by cooking. A life-changing nutritionist guided me through

foods that made my body tick — week by week imparting stories about how and why food fuels our bodies. She showed me a lens through which I’d never viewed food, and it invigorated a newfound culinary curiosity. But even with her help, I felt like I was stumbling through the dark. I became increasingly frustrated that my mom never demanded that I learn cooking basics or passed down family recipes; then I’d quickly feel the sting of guilt for being mad at a mother that showed me infinite love and grace. After months of fumbling around with pots and pans that were at the mercy of makeshift recipes, the discouragement started to settle in. To be frank, the food I was making just wasn’t satisfying. I realize now that there was no heart or soul infused into the food I was preparing. I was being forced to cook during a time when my most meaningful connection to food had been severed.

Throughout the Bible, God often sends signs or messages to his believers during their lowest points. It’s a tenet of faith that I think about often, especially when I recall this point in my life. One day, I stumbled upon a collection of journals filled with my moms handwriting. As I skimmed the pages, I read personal stories about her relationship with food — her loves, her struggles, her triumphs. It was my own low point sign! The revelation her words delivered helped fuel my journey to stove-side self-discovery. I realize now that my mom did what she could to help me shape my own relationship with food; one that wasn’t tethered to feelings of guilt or insecurity. She gifted me the freedom to discover the well-rounded joy that food brings — The Conversations it Stirs. The Spaces it Manifests. The Flavors it Forges. The Lessons it Instills. And The Memories it Creates and Conjures.

Jailyn is a native Texan that believes in the healing power of sizzling fajitas paired with a damn good margarita. Tag along for her culinary conquests via Instagram @jailynmarcel.

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