Curative Cooking: A Return to Family Dinner
By Charlotte Blumenfeld
I didn't realize the significance of shared culinary experiences until I made butternut squash gnocchi with my family while having withdrawals from prednisone. I had been on prednisone to treat my autoimmune disease, and, with a wealth of synthetic steroid coursing through my veins, my adrenal gland decided to take a break from producing cortisol — a crucial natural hormone for functioning. When I stopped taking prednisone I experienced a series of withdrawals; I was devoid of hormones, synthetic or natural, leaving my body weak and my mind in torment. During my recovery I came to understand that food serves as a means to connect to those I love; to receive and cherish their support. Family dinners would become paramount in regaining my health and happiness.
I ate dinner with my family every night as a child. The routine was not born out of the expected “parents insisted and we all obeyed,” nor was it any reflection of my parents’ culinary talents. Family dinner was our structured way to ensure that each day we could all step out of our personal lives and enter into a shared space. Our dining table hosted the revealing of secrets most children would never tell their parents, and most parents would never tell their children; singing in harmony with my dad’s nightly playlist; occasional tears when my brother mocked me. No matter the intensity of the night, by the end of every meal all was well. Our relationships strengthened.
Freshman year of college was my first prolonged vacation from family dinner. Worse, whether I was eating pizza, stir-fry, or salad, the dining hall food all tasted and smelled of chlorine. I was eager to eat fresh, flavorful food again. I decided I would be much more involved in family cooking when I returned. A week after I got home for the summer (and seven of my exquisite home-cooked meals, thank-you-very-much), I woke up one morning with extremely distorted vision. Following numerous doctors appointments, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that if left untreated, would render me blind. I started treatment immediately. Though the thought of one day being completely blind terrified me, I remained optimistic, turning to hobbies for pleasure and distraction. I spent the summer cultivating my love for cooking. I worked on new recipes nightly, and tested them out on my family. It was an outlet, but at this point I still only recognized how food served me personally. I would later come to regard food as a medium for interpersonal connection.
The withdrawals from prednisone started when I returned to school. The simplest tasks felt daunting. Manhattan raced around me while I spent days alone in my room. Weighed down by negativity, and the layers of blankets necessary for an East Village apartment, I lay in bed researching comforting recipes I longed for the strength to cook. The Internet provided fleeting mental escape, but I sought the corporeal invigoration of preparing a meal. By the holidays, I was able to take a trip home. My family knew of my keen craving to try out new recipes. In between messages to the family group-chat with my medical updates were links to dishes I wanted to cook. Many of the recipes were quite lengthy and involved. As my energy rapidly waned beyond three p.m., I needed my family’s assistance. They were happy to help, knowing the hours I’d spent in anticipation. One evening at home, my family acted as my kitchen crew for a two hour long preparation of butternut squash gnocchi from scratch.
Preheat oven to 450. The hot, dry air from the oven seeped out into the kitchen, awakening my physical senses to what was to come. Cut and peel the butternut squash. This was the step that had barred me from preparing the dish on my own. I had the physical strength, but at the time of withdrawals, the process seemed daunting. My brother took over, under my careful instruction. Roast the squash. Heat continued to escape the oven, the air now saturated with a sweet aroma. Wait. Taking me by the hand, my father gently waltzed me around the kitchen, like I had done as a kid, though this time without my feet overlapping his. Mix the dough. We set up the Cuisinart stand mixer, an emblem of adulthood. I envisioned one day having my own, teaching my children to use it how my mother had taught me. Form the gnocchi. As an efficient assembly line, we rolled small balls out of the gooey dough. They were not uniform. I did not care. Boil. I closed my eyes. “A watched pot never boils,” my mother always said. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water. As each gnocchi sprung to the top, my excitement accumulated. Sauté. When the olive oil started to shimmer in the pan, we placed in the gnocchi, browning the edges, allowing the sweet, nutty flavor to develop to its full potential. Serve. I sat next to my brother, directly across from mom, and diagonal from dad; an unspoken law.
I took my first bite. As my teeth pierced the gnocchi the crisp edge gave way to the rich butternut center. Realizing the only sound in my ears was from my own chewing, I took my gaze up from inside my bowl to notice my family each taking a personal moment to savor the flavor. Before they said anything, I knew that the dish was a success. I was elated. I had anticipated a feeling of cheerful self-assurance, like I had felt when I prepared new dishes over the summer. This time, I experienced an irrepressible euphoria, coupled with immense gratitude for my family’s support. My family provided me the physical needs my illness left me feeling incapable of, without stripping me of my agency. They could have prepared dinner for me, but in allowing me complete control over the process, my family reminded me of what I was still capable of. Amidst the chaos of my changing life, cooking alongside my family displayed the solidity in their love.
While at home, my withdrawals minimized and I regained my strength. When I returned to school, I continued to channel my energy in the kitchen. I felt as though my roommate Leah, whom I was first getting to know at the time of my withdrawals, was just now getting to know me. The healthy me. Leah hadn’t cooked for herself before coming to college. She enjoyed my cooking and wanted to learn. After she tried butternut squash, it became her new favorite vegetable. I even began calling her “Butternut.” I described to her the butternut squash gnocchi dish I made at home, but I couldn’t do it justice. My love for the dish was born out of experience. Not flavor. Even if we had the tools in our small apartment kitchen, it would not elicit the same magic. I could re-create the flavor, but not the feeling of cooking the dish in my kitchen at home, where I felt most in control, supported, and passionate.
For spring break, Leah came home with me and we prepared the dish together with my parents. Over the semester we had become best friends, but it was not until this experience that Leah fully understood me. She partook in the process most central to my relationship with my family: the explanation to my value for communal cooking, and why it has become the oil to my wheels since my diagnosis.
Whenever I go home, I am sure to work butternut squash gnocchi into the family dinner rotation. I am reminded of the people in my life who offer me unconditional support. Although my autoimmune disease has led to challenges, it has also forced me to discover my passion for cooking, my appreciation of food’s power. In preparing dishes, we curate flavor. But when done so communally, we do much more: connect with one another, assist those in need, nourish ourselves. Food, and the togetherness it facilitates, provided me the fortitude to heal.