This is how it has grown for me: from a pot of green chili stew simmered with a lot of greens. It was not France and Belgium that sealed the deal for me, though that was a beautifully romantic start. Until the stew I was a raw mess, because for all of Europe’s beauty and our romance, I came home to a ruined first marriage and the sense that in some manner I had lived through a world war. Jonathan and I did not glom onto and live happily ever after. Rather, I walked, shaking, by his apartment, for a very long time.
Slowly, we dated. It was very controlled as to when I could come over, a thing I would probably not put up with now. The first two years were unstable and devastating. But he kept feeding me the green chili with kale, chard. I was a begrudging eater. The greens were soggy and sort of tasteless. Yet I knew they packed a house of nutrition; I knew in some profound, quiet way that they were moving me toward health.
When you grow up fed on toxic sludge your palate is less than discerning. But here was this man! With gentle elegance and a way with his hands that still renders me peaceable and in love. We “met” in Belgium, on a paleolithic dig where the Neanderthals and Sapiens dined on mammoth and ibex. We’d known each other before, of course, at the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico. But in Europe, I broke; we broke. My 56 year old aunt was dying of colon cancer that summer. I stood on the banks of the Meuse River in a tiny garden tucked between the old rectory we were housed in and the church associated with it, knowing that if I did not deal with whatever was rising up in me, my fate would be hers. I had no idea what this was about. I just knew it to be true.
The garden was tended by an elderly couple with a white Scottie named Ophelia. I remember little lettuces, neat rows. At night, Jonathan and I would hunt coq au vin at local bistros in Dinant. An enormous castle loomed over the whole town, arrow slits and all. Outside, on the highways lacing the Ardennes, Sherman tanks were left deliberately, from another war.
The Belgians serve coq au vin with frites, or as we would call them, French fries. They serve everything with frites. They eat more frites than Americans ever will. Even this was a revelation. It all was a revelation that summer. In Paris, when we had a week off from the cool cave we were digging in, we went to a more elegant café and Jonathan ordered boudin. I didn’t even know what boudin was until then. Blood sausage. In him, this was sheer elegance, and exhibited a quiet kind of curiosity and courage lacking in others. He came home and quit anthropology, began cooking. I came home and gave up school too, taking crappy jobs as my world unraveled, subletting funky apartments in shaky parts of town. Neither one of us was a gift to committed relationship at that point.
But the greens were at work. A year in, we took a month long trip to Montana, where I completely fell apart in White Sulphur Springs. I had to call my therapist. I was consumed with rage, and trying hard not to dump it all on him. I didn’t really succeed, but we made up later by eating steak at a Quonset hut housing a surf and turf a mile out of town. “White Sulphur Springs” is now a humorous code word for Oh My God, Here She Goes Again.
As my own family’s wounds grew irreparable, his family stepped in. We ended up on a barge in southern France with his father, stepmother, brother and his fiancé, a flat of peaches purchased at the beginning and lasting the entire trip. Each day they grew more fragrant; no one forgets the peaches now. In more recent years Thanksgiving has been unifying in part because everyone cooks and cooks well. So we will descend on Bellingham or Bozeman or Sarasota, or they will descend on us in Durango, and the meal is surrounded by other meals. Rack of Montana lamb brought by Aunt Susan and cooked by Uncle Peter; niece Sky now a Johnson and Wales trained pastry chef doing up the pies; the entire lot of us caravanning across international borders in search of the perfect dim sum in Vancouver.
We gave our son, last Christmas, in preparation for his eventual departure from our house, the newest rendition of The Joy of Cooking. For the better part of a year he ignored it. But this summer, after a month in England, he said he was ready for college and began snooping for recipes. He’s a meat and potato man, so we have been treated to shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, sloppy joes. Last night he made chicken cordon bleu.
He wanted his father home first to help because cordon bleu was a step up. I found them, cooking together. Jonathan no longer cooks for money, but it is safe to say it is a livelihood. In a month, we will return to Bellingham for more turkey and dim sum. In three months, our son will leave us for college. And so it is I married: because I knew as I healed from my war, he would continue to feed me greens and risk boudin; and best of all, give me a family of cooks and love, on which to build a life.