I don’t remember what age I was – older than 10, younger than 14 – when I convinced my mother to show me how to make pancakes. For months afterward, my family was woken up on weekends (and also on special occasions) by the sound of the mixer going off in the kitchen. It was an old model – one that my mother had been gifted as thanks when she herself was a teenager, one that I was using now to perfect my egg-beating skills. It was a rare moment – the discovery of a new skill, the desire to master it – that drove me to keep on practicing until everyone but me got sick of pancakes. I learned so much from just this one meal – how to tell when the batter is the right consistency without dipping a spoon in, how to manage the girdle unsupervised, how to tell when the pancake is ready to flip – very valuable things to know in the kitchen and in life.
But then there are some meals which you just don’t touch, which are not yours to master.
When I spent my summers with my grandparents, on days when there was time, my grandfather would take out the old hand-held sandwich press, fire up the cooker, and make the best grilled cheese in the universe. It was the real, true holiday treat, one that I craved all year round but only got every once in a while. I’d sit in the kitchen and watch him as he buttered the bread, assembled the sandwiches, and cut them down to size with the precision of a surgeon. He did everything with ease and nonchalance, like it was a natural skill to him. I would observe his ease, his patience, and think I would never possess even a tenth of that.
When he’d put my plate in front of me, I’d go for the first bite, even if I knew it was too hot. I’d relish the crunch of the bread, the softness of the filling, and then pull the cheese up and round it around the crust, an infinite band of yellow. I’d finish eating before the next batch was ready, and I’d be praised for having such a good appetite. I don’t think I’d ever taste anything so good in my life.
Later, years later, when my relationship with food deteriorated and my eating became disordered, grilled cheese was one of the foods on my “safe list”, and thanks to an electric grill left behind by a former roommate, I was able to whip up breakfast, lunch and dinner with minimal fuss. It was never as good as what my grandfather made – I didn’t use butter, for one. The cheese was pre-cut into thin strips, and the bread was often just this side of mouldy, as befitting a student house – but it was a meal I could put together when my body was screaming with exhaustion and pain.
In that year – the final of my undergraduate, the first of Jitsu – I labored harder than I ever had, piling on the work and the work-outs. I walked to uni every day, 45 minutes up a steep hill, and then another 40 minutes back, sometimes twice a day. I swam at least twice a week. Once we came back from the Christmas holidays, I went to the dojo three-four times a week. I took up running again. I took on most of my electives in the first semester, not realizing how early the job search had to start. Had my diet not encouraged me to “eat fat”, I would have done all that running on coffee fumes. As was, those sandwiches saved my life. Grilled cheese, fried eggs, peanut butter on rice cakes, avocado toast, curry on rice, salads with tuna – it kept me from completely dissolving into myself. The worry ate at me, but at least it had something other than my internal organs to chew on.
Last time I went to see them, granddad made the sandwiches again for me. I could have asked him to teach me, asked him what the secret was. Despite all the years of observing him, I never quite knew what he did to make the food taste so good.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I smiled and accepted it, grateful for being able to enjoy this, now, even when I’m sad. Even if I still felt like I might fall apart if I’m not careful. I accepted the simple pleasure of something dear to me, something that had miraculously followed me all my life, unscathed by unpleasant associations. Breakfast with my family, having my appetite praised instead of frowned upon, having my interest in food and participating in family life – it’s the true gift. Not the mastery with the iron.