Today, I am beyond honored to host the words of Frankie Huang. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, 1843 Magazine and many, many other phenomenal publications. The fact that her work is also now published here on homeculture is just...absolutely wondrous. What do you do when you get to edit and publish one of your favorite writers? Dance around the kitchen! At least that's what I did.
Frankie Huang is a Chinese American feminist writer and artist. She writes and draws about diaspora identity, contemporary Chinese culture, and the lives of women. She occasionally writes in her Substack newsletter PutongWords Etc. on the humor, wit, beauty but also the oppressive patriarchal order that linger in ordinary Chinese words.
Emotional Support Kitchen
by Frankie Huang
For the past year I’ve shared a lot of cooking content on Twitter.
Photos of shriveled slivers of onion turning brown mid-caramelization, upturned potstickers with their gleaming golden bottoms, thick ribbons of hand-pulled noodles coiled serpentine in a blue and white ceramic bowl, studded with vibrant greens and reds of sliced scallion and chili pepper.
I feel this little glow cast about me every time I receive a compliment on my food pics. It's as if I’m some seasoned old-timer at my food stall, drawing a crowd as I show off my economy of movement and frictionless flow. Everything controlled and balanced and perfectly timed.
The truth is, before the pandemic, I was on year six of a hiatus from cooking. It seemed like it would last forever. I was in Shanghai and it was hard to resist affordable takeout. Before that, I was a somewhat broke gig-worker that ate a lot of stuff on toast over the sink.
My instincts for cooking have always been pretty good. But I rarely made anything more complicated than eggs on toast. So cooking never stopped feeling experimental, exploratory, exciting in its uncertain outcome. Was it going to be good? Was it going to be awful? How does “good” or “awful” taste exactly? I never knew how any dish was going to turn out exactly. That was always okay. Those instincts mostly steered me clear of abject failure.
My forever hiatus from cooking ended in the middle of the never-ending pandemic. I transitioned from someone who sometimes cooked for fun to someone who cooks to eat.
Perhaps under calmer circumstances, going from living off of takeout to cooking all of my own meals might have been more jarring. But when I think back to when I made the switch, I can only remember the fear and dread that pressed in around me. The brief reprieve I found daily in the kitchen as I washed and peeled and sliced, mixed and tossed, roasted and fried and grilled. I don’t remember how I felt about the cooking in the moment. It was just something I had to do.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I left behind our Shanghai abode to stay with his parents in a house in New England surrounded by trees. We felt garrisoned away from the diseased miasma that loomed yonder. Masks, hand sanitizers, bleach wipes and gloves were our armor against those invisible enemies. Protocol ruled our every waking moment. Each day I marched into the kitchen, I felt like I was filled with purpose. I had to produce a hearty meal to keep the troops going.
The element of play that was once essential to my cooking adventures boiled away. It was reduced toa new concentration; to master simple, sensible recipes. I fumbled for the first few days. While trying to time roasting a whole chicken around sautéing Brussel sprouts and steaming rice on the stove top. Or making sure roasted vegetables came out of the oven at the same time as the pot roast. Vegetables got cold and limp on the table while we waited for the chicken to reach a safe temperature. Chopped onion turned to charcoal on the stove while I took too much time to minced garlic.
I learned to glance at the clock on the oven often. It became natural to do mental math on what’s been cooking and for how long. I began to keep track of the state of finishedness of each dish, something I once observed line cooks do when I worked in a restaurant kitchen. It wasn’t long before I stopped thinking about how to dice my onions, but made each purposeful cut in the same order. Constantly calibrating my hands to perform fewer motions, and with more deliberate intent. I started being able to taste the sweet, charred edge of a piece of carrot when I looked down at it in the pot. Now I can feel the crunch of crisped chicken skin in my mouth when I see that deep, golden color illuminated by the oven light.
While I cooked, the news delivered reports of heads of state, high officials, and experts of every stripe flailing in an official capacity. I felt every official disaster and had no emotions left for unpredictable cooking adventures. It was such a comfort to have gained so much control over an outcome. Even when that outcome was one single perfectly roasted carrot.
Dinner was at always at seven. It was always simple, but good. This was even the case on the evening of an all-out fall-out with my in-laws over my fastidious demands for pandemic safety. I was called a horror, a nasty woman and a crazy bitch. In short, unpalatable. But ah, the carnitas I made that night were perfectly crisped on the edges. Absolutely melt-in-your-mouth. They were flavored with the delicate fragrance of orange peels, sweet onions, and cumin. Everyone ate.
Things went constantly to shit, but at least I always knew dinner would not disappoint.
Leaning this hard on cooking for emotional support inevitably backfired like any other kind of unbalanced attachment. You wouldn’t have wanted to be around me when the leaven dough of my cabbage and pork buns collapses into a thick, rubbery mess in the steamer. Or when the texture of my twice-cooked pork is chewy rather than tender. Or when the Uyghur polo/pilaf dish burned on the bottom. You’d think my food had actually turned into steaming piles of shit by the intensity of my anguish. Such was the outsized grief over food that is too far gone to even really be categorized as ruined.
But of course it’s not really grief over dinner.
At some point it occurred to me that the kitchen may be my refuge from a world turned upside down, but the work I do there sustains rather than solves.
Getting a perfect sear on a pair of pork chops doesn’t change the fact that large portions of the population think other people in masks infringes on their freedom. Pulling a noodle to be twice as wide as my arm span doesn’t stop strangers from brutalizing Asian elders in broad daylight. A perfect sip of hot tomato soup laced with paprika and chili pepper is a balm for my weary soul, but it doesn’t fill the yawning hole in my heart.
The joy and healing of cooking is real, but alas, I can’t live in the kitchen, but only return day after day to fill up my belly again, so I can keep going.
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