When My Marriage and Job Ended, Cooking Helped Me Heal
Three years ago, I went through one of the roughest patches of my life. I was getting divorced. Moving out of my home. And things at my job as a food editor had come to a head and I ended up leaving that as well.
For the first time in 16 years, I was single. For the first time since age 13, I was unemployed. And one situation compounded the other as I was hit with the sudden, crushing knowledge that I was solely responsible for myself and two kids, one about to enter college and one still in diapers. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I made ravioli.
I have always found great pleasure in complicated recipes, what Julia Child called “hobby cooking” and what Melissa Clark saves for her weekends. The more involved, the better. Dough from scratch, making my own almond flour for macarons. Now, finally, I had limitless time to cook, and quickly found that following the simple, step-by-step instructions of a recipe was soothing and satisfying in a way nothing else in my life was at the time.
So, lost, scared shitless, and at the same time slightly exhilarated with my newfound freedom, I mixed the flour, eggs and olive oil for the ravioli in my rented kitchen. Without any proper tools, I improvised, rolling the dough by hand and using the only pasta wheel I could find: a small, wooden one from my son’s toy baking set that barely worked. Not satisfied with one filling, I mixed up three, roasting and pureeing butternut squash, browning sausage, and mixing ricotta well past my usual dinner hour, while dirty pots and pans piled up around me. I scooped and sealed pillowy pockets of dough, then made sauces from scratch for each variety: brown butter sage for the squash, cream for the ricotta, tomato for the sausage.
I ate this insane feast alone in my kitchen, with no one to praise me—or to complain. The next day, I made another dish. And another. Rogan josh, an Indian lamb curry dish, served with homemade pita bread. I spent an entire evening perfecting the pleat on pork dumplings. I taught myself to make bagels and laminate dough, a rigorous process of folding butter into the layers until you have the perfect flaky consistency for croissants and other pastries. And I discovered how richly rewarding and gratifying it was to create again.
Cooking is how I meditate. And it was how I healed. Follow these instructions, get this result. You get out what you put in. That was nothing like what I experienced in my marriage or career, and as I licked the results off my fingers, I felt like, yeah, everything is going to work out.
When you’re forced to make a big change, loss is what feels most acute at first, and for a long, long time. The lack of, the reduction. But a reduction, any chef will tell you, is crucial to bringing flavors to the forefront, to concentrating and distilling something to a better version of itself. Burn away everything else and what remains is what’s most essential.
I left so much behind in the last three years, but I don’t miss any of it. What I kept, while the pain and grief and self-doubt slowly evaporated, is what I treasure. And it is what will get me through the next time life’s circumstances take a dip toward the unstable. That’s what cooking really taught me. And it’s the only recipe I’ll ever need.
Jill Waldbieser is a Newton, Pennsylvania-based writer, editor and recipe developer.
Try her recipe for: Butternut Squash Ravioli
This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine January/February 2020.