BY KELLY COGSWELL | So, I’ve been trying to write a cookbook for the last couple of years, deluded into thinking it would be a nice, light-hearted distraction from the horrors of politics. And why not? I had a bunch of good Kentucky recipes and decent home cook creds. There was even that summer during college that I did a stint in a professional kitchen at Yellowstone National Park.
I began as a dish dog, and got promoted to prep cook where I chopped about a thousand pounds of onions for French onion soup and made broccoli quiche. The adventure came to a quick and very painful end when I was lifting an enormous pot of boiling pasta, hit the edge of the stove, and tipped it over on myself. Who knew polyester pants could actually melt and stick to your flesh?
After that they shuttled me out of there as fast as they could. The guys didn’t like having a girl in the kitchen, and they reassigned me to the gift shop where the most dangerous things I faced were the mice attracted by the huge blocks of fudge. It was too late, though. I was hooked, had learned how to use a chef’s knife and cutting board like Julia Child on TV. When my mother or grandmother wanted to chop anything from a potato to a peach they’d hold it in their left hand and cut away at it with a small paring knife in their right. It was a miracle no one ended up with nubs.
PERSPECTIVE: A DYKE ABROAD
For cookbook text, I thought I could tell a few stories like that about my family, and maybe even make them funny. You’d have to, after all. Cookbooks are a peculiar genre in which we all love the mothers and grandmothers who influenced us as home cooks, or even as professional ones. The cooking of our roots is shared without resentment. Healthy recipes are offered without the anxiety, self-loathing, and fear that spawned them. If we admit we grew up on fried bologna sandwiches, Hamburger Helper, and canned green beans, it is done only with sophisticated irony. In fact, let’s have a dinner party with Jell-O salad and tuna casserole slathered with cream of mushroom soup and those crispy little onion rings. A martini will help us choke it down.
I tried to write that way, I really did. But it came off as false. I am as disgruntled in the kitchen as I am in the activist street, and have such mixed feelings about the whole thing it’s a miracle that my cakes rise and the milk doesn’t curdle. I have an abject fear of getting fat, which is partly vanity but mostly the diabetes that runs rampant in my family. One of my aunts died not long after they amputated both her legs.
And while my grandmother would bring out the baked ham and homemade cucumber pickles on holidays, and maybe a big pan of apple crisp, the rest of the time, she just wanted to boil up a hotdog for dinner or eat cheese and crackers. If she wanted to work all day in a hot kitchen, she could have stayed on the farm, working like a dog and popping babies. Lord, she was happy when she got her tubes tied after her fourth baby. It was a step up to work in a factory. I think of her when I read about the slow food movement, or some writer hectoring us to get back in the luminous kitchen.
Then there are the cookbooks by black writers who carefully describe the contribution of black chefs to the Southern kitchen, detailing everything from cooking techniques to the actual seeds that they brought along on the slave ships. They celebrate survival and ingenuity, the ability to transform the leavings from the master’s kitchen into haute cuisine.
And I can only marvel at how rational yet heartfelt it is, and begin to imagine the writer on Xanax. Yes, I know that “soul” food was reclaimed during the Black Power era, in the same way many of us have reclaimed the words fag or dyke or queer, but doesn’t that recipe for mustard greens stick in your craw? Don’t you want to throw that okra in my white face? I mean, the food is tasty and all, but doesn’t it leave a bitter taste in your mouth?
I often forget just how deep my own grief goes until I step into the kitchen and roll out a pie crust or drop some biscuits onto a pan, and evoke my family and Kentucky, remember how my Southern Baptist mother disowned me for decades. And the preachers and politicians there still wish I were dead. And should that happen as it did in Orlando, would refuse to bury me or bring a covered dish to my mourning lesbian family.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.