The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. Maya Angelou
The birds were soooooo loud that, had they been human, I would have complained. And yet, I’d been waiting all winter for their song. The sky, a soft pearly gray, was on the cusp of becoming dawn. I smiled. I had recently been reflecting on my life choices and wondered what my life would have been had I married, raised children and settled in one place that I could call home. I don’t think I was regretful exactly because, given my life experiences, I would make the same choices again. For the moment, with the birdsong, all was well.
I lay in bed reading My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a memoir by Ruth Reichl. She is one of my favorite food memoirists. Her heartwarming stories are insights into food as a vocation. Reading about the discovery, cooking, and sharing of food usually draws me into a joyful place. But this was not the case that morning. Instead, I placed the book on my chest and became reflective. What was I feeling? Yearning.
As the warm colors of the dawn sky filled my window, I wanted to get on with my day, to put those uneasy feelings out of my mind. Encouraged by Reichl’s sensual writing, I got up to fix breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted: banana pancakes, homemade blueberry syrup, vegetarian sausage, and a boiled egg. Such a treat. I had been making kale smoothies for breakfast, and the sweetness of the bananas mixed with the blueberries was a delicious change!
The steady, rhythmic activity of making blueberry syrup and pancake batter was meditative, giving me time to focus on what I was feeling. Then, like a fog clearing, it came to me. I was feeling homesick. I felt as if I had missed something very important in my life.
Homesick. The word repeated itself inside like bubbles floating in the air. Where, I wondered, was home? I had left so many places behind. Beautiful cities, emerald mountains, oceans. Where was that place to which I could return for complete acceptance and safety?
After breakfast, I watched an episode of Chefs Table, a Netflix series that documents the lives of chefs and their paths to culinary vocations. This particular episode examined the life of Mashama Bailey, an African American chef in Savannah, Georgia, and her return to home. The landscape of rivers, rural farms and the relationship among southern cooking, culture, and home deepened my sadness. I missed the summers of southern beauty that I shared so often with my family. Growing up, I loved the food. I hated the racist, violent South. Still, the gatherings at meals were safe, healthy moments. Then, as I watched Chef Bailey’s story, I surprised myself: tears. Where was that place that was, as Maya Angelou said, a “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”? Watching Chef Bailey’s story, I had tears, but I did not have an answer.
During my initial crisis with CIDP ─ chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy ─ I was placed in a skilled nursing facility (still working on that essay…). I could not raise my arms nor use my hands. I could barely walk. One of the occupational therapists said to me “You should accept this. All those complicated meals you cooked in the past are probably over.” She was trying to be kind, even helpful, but she had poked the bear. My rage shut down conversation in the room. “Don’t you ever tell me what I won’t be able to do!” When she returned from the administrator’s office, I was assigned a new occupational therapist who had no better understanding of my condition or what my abilities might be than the first. I moved to a different facility with therapists who had a broader understanding of the importance of cooking. In doing so, I really began to understand something that is an essential part of me: I feel safe and free when I am exploring the culinary world. Food is major to my sense of feeling at home.
In the documentary, Chef Bailey poignantly made the connection between food and her relationship to home. Her heart was in Savannah where she’d spent so much of her early childhood. In later years, after failing as a social worker in New York, she went on to study the culinary arts with Anne Willan, founder of the prestigious École de Cuisine La Varenne in France and Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in New York. With that experience and the memory of the warmth generated by food, culture, and community in her native Savannah, things eventually became clear. Returning to Savannah with its fresh seafood, local farms, and lush green marshes, she met her business partner, John Morisano.
Together they turned a formerly segregated Jim Crow era bus station into The Grey, one of Savannah’s premier restaurants. Chef Bailey’s business acumen and talent won her the prestigious James Beard Award. Her love for food and joy at being where she considers home is changing hearts, plate by plate.
I know what that warmth of being at home feels like, particularly in relationship to the South and the sumptuous summers I spent there. I embrace my Gullah heritage, and I am joyful when in harmony with my Southern traditions. I revere the farmland and farmers. But. The South is not my home; it was my parents’ home.
Later, I prepared a lunch of roasted chicken, baked potato, a tossed salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts. As I washed and sliced the sprouts, the physical connection to home grew stronger and stronger. The warmth of the oven, the peace and serenity of music, the afternoon spring light streaming through a window. There it was, that place of safety where I could be all of who I am.
There was no one sharing those moments with me, and yet, in that space in time, the yearning was gone. Cooking had brought me back to the place that is my home. My heart.