I’ve been pondering joy for quite some time but when it came to writing I always stalled. The 100th birthday of Julia Child seemed as good a time as any to put pen to paper.
When men find out that I love to cook, about 85% of them respond “Oh, like Julie & Julia!” Julia Child was the patron saint of home cooks for decades before that book/movie, but Julie Powell renewed her cult as a pop culture phenomenon. I have a magnet on my fridge that asks “What Would Julia Do?”
This is the part where I admit that I don’t like cooking Julia’s recipes that well. I prefer my food uncomplicated, light on animal, heavy on vegetable. What I love, however, is Julia’s joie de vivre. In my haphazard study of joy and my quest to possess it, I kept running into Julia and into my kitchen.
A Tale of Two Lobsters
Last summer, I finished my Master’s and I fell in love. I spent the two years it took to earn the degree in perpetual fear that someone was going to figure out that I wasn’t smart enough to be here. Though I protected my secret, I also held myself back in just about every way and it made me miserable. I had a wonderfully weird, loving, and supportive community as an undergrad, a blessing that has spoiled me for life, and upon leaving it I felt adrift and alone in the world. I cowered in my apartment like a poor lost fawn. The rest of the time I acted like Bambi. And I hated myself.
Julia Child once said “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a ‘what-the-hell’ attitude.” Unless you’re in charge of safety standards or WMDs or something, I think that’s a good life philosophy as well. After what felt like a pretty disastrous year in which I failed a lot (but not my exams!), I found my ‘what-the-hell’ attitude and consequently my joy.
But then I fell in love and into a bad relationship and all my fear of failure, fear of not being enough, and fear of being too much got transferred to that vulnerable experience. I’ve never felt so alone or so unhappy. As Julia also said, “Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” I wish I’d gone with not at all.
As I slid deeper into depression I kept inwardly screaming, “What happened!?” It felt like I’d been flying and then, without warning, crashed to the ground. I think, really, it all comes back to the night when my love and I cooked Julia’s Lobster Thermidor. He is a natural leader who had a tendency to steamroll me without seeing it. I prefer to lead invisibly, taking care of things behind the scenes, but I hate it when I get sidelined because I’m not pushy. Put us in the kitchen together and I was usually upset. But he didn’t know that.
When we made lobster thermidor, it was a romantic evening comprised of five hours in the kitchen eating, cooking, laughing. We made an enormous feast. I did all the boring side dishes (including a boxed chocolate lava cake that I found somewhat offensive—I make great cakes). He got to do the flashy stuff, like most of the lobster thermidor. I kept trying to get in on that, and kept getting elbowed out. Rather than just say how I felt, I hated myself. I was afraid that if I brought it up, I would be—I don’t even know—not a nice enough girl. It’s awful. At that point I felt like niceness was all I had to offer. I myself am a case study for girlhood studies.
Maybe it was a Freudian slip, but at one point I burned the brie and cucumber sandwiches I didn’t even want in the first place. Later I wrote a story about this in which it became a lesson in learning to let go and not be so controlling. I could vomit. The truth is that I didn’t give a shit about those sandwiches. I felt like I should have, so I pretended I did. I was afraid of making someone mad so I guessed at an appropriate reaction. Then, he got to tell me to just relax and not spoil the evening with pouting.
Looking back, this experience, mundane though it was, encapsulates that entire relationship, and that entire phase of my life. I was scared to be strong. Afraid that I was weak. And pushing down everything that I loved about myself to make myself more loveable to other people. I know we all know that doesn’t work. I was so scared of everything that I was failing at everything. Under all that pressure, I crumbled.
Interlude: The Lemon Tart that Wasn’t
When I started to feel terrible last year, I began an unofficial project I was calling “Joy Studies.” When I finally admitted that I was depressed, I took it up more fully. I read a dozen books of various genres addressing joy, struggle, anxiety, shame, and human connection. I begged God for a more joyful heart. I made little progress. Scratch that. I noticed little progress.
This year, I’ve faced a long, and for me unprecedented, string of kitchen disasters. To date the gritty macrons are the most disappointing. Each Monday of last semester, my friend Olivia came over and we cooked dinner and watched Pushing Daisies. She was my lifeline as I struggled to climb my way out of sadness and heartbreak (oh woe). Each week I somehow killed the dessert. The worst offense was when I left the eggs out of a lemon tart, resulting in what amounted to baked lemon pulp in a soggy crust. Olivia was sweet and ate it anyway. Later that semester, after she learned that she had best not eat dairy or gluten, I decided to make her victory souffle after her last finals of senior year. Souffles contain milk. That’d be dairy. And, despite my previous positive outcomes, they didn’t rise properly anyway.
Had I made such enormous, glaring errors anywhere but my kitchen, I would have been mortified. I would have started to sweat, choking back tears before racing home and kicking myself for messing up for the rest of the day, and then the rest of my life. In the kitchen, I just didn’t care. Cooking has many variables and one small mistake can throw everything off. But an ugly pie is edible. A flat souffle tastes like vanilla eggs. A bad dish doesn’t make you a bad cook. Though my sister insists, with the blind support of children, that I audition for MasterChef, I’m not trying to be the best anyway. It’s no wonder that I love my kitchen. Little by little the lessons of these kitchen nightmares began to leave the kitchen. I started to get my “what-the-hell” back.
Consult Buddhists such as Pema Chodron. Consult Jesus. Check the lives of the saints or of other successful weirdos, and you’ll find that they all teach you that the enemy of joy isn’t sadness. The enemy of joy is fear.
Do you remember the part from Julie & Julia in which Julia learns how to a kill a lobster and narrates her cooking school days to Avis, declaring that the men now respect her because they learned, as she did, that she is fearless? I cooked lobster thermidor a second time this May to celebrate the end of the first year of my PhD and as a gesture of gratitude to some of the many people who helped me through a trying time in one way or another. This time, I made a lighter, simpler recipe from a 1940s Epicurious chef. I spent the whole day in my kitchen, starting with humorously fat homemade ravioli and ending with the thermidor. It was all supposed to be timed perfectly. The thermidor would be on its last leg as my guests arrived so that I could serve the salad as it finished and make the butter and lemon sauce for the goat cheese and bacon ravioli as my friends ate the lobster. We also had canned escargot (no joke) as an appetizer for the brave. I had a plan. It was all going smoothly. Then it was time to kill the lobsters. First, the water took forever to boil. Hrm. Then, when I went to put the second lobster in the pot, it began to fight me and I screamed and dropped it in the sink. Which was full of foamy soap bubbles. I wanted to cry as the lobster used its large, ineffective claws to wipe soap out of its eyes. I had to wash it off and then put it in the pot. I felt like a horrible human being who had just water boarded dinner.
I got my comeuppance later. As I dismembered the lobsters, one of the ridges on the lobster’s claw sliced right into my hand at the thumb joint. In the words of MasterChef Christine “It pierced me!” I had 30 minutes before my guests arrived. I was bleeding profusely. I needed to walk Rory and take out the trash. And get the thermidor on the stove. Do you think I panicked? I. Did. Not. Something inside of me (the part that has watched Julie & Julia at least 50 times) warbled “I am fearless!” I bandaged my hand, made sure the food was clean, and got Rory and the trash outside, just in time for guests to come. Sure I was frazzled and still cooking as my guests were arriving and the dog was greeting them all with volleys of accusatory barking. But I knew it was going to be okay. I trusted that I could pull this off. And, if I didn’t, it just wasn’t going to kill me. The lobster had already tried that.
That lobster bitch who cut me encapsulates this new phase of my life as the lobster I didn’t get to cook encapsulates the old. I didn’t pretend to have qualms about killing the lobster in order to be girlie. I didn’t like the killing. I cringed as I did it. But I did it confidently. I cooked the whole meal by myself, uncertain how it would turn out, but knowing that even if I screwed something up, I would find enough to feed my guests and I would be in good company anyway. I felt strong. I felt like I was me again, or maybe for the first time. The evening was supposed to be this big, significant internal triumph in which I proved to the world that I was over my broken heart and I could cook the thermidor myself. It wasn’t. It was a beautiful evening with good friends and good wine. It wasn’t cathartic, but I was content. I realize two things now. 1) This journey is not and has never been about any man or me vs the world. It is just mine to hold. 2) You cannot plan joy. It comes when you are too busy living the moment to look for it or, conversely, when you stop to notice that it has arrived. Joy was in the room that night.
I don’t really have answers. I’m still sad sometimes and I’m still sort of scared. But I feel strong. I know the things that summon joy to my life: cooking, my dog, small faith communities, my record player. I know that good things tend to come to us when we stop looking for something specific and just open ourselves up to the unfolding story. I know that, like Julia, we have to be brave enough to try something new and to have the courage of our convictions whether we’re flipping an omelet or standing our ground. Happy birthday, Julia. And thank you for all the joy you released into the world.
After a year-long journey, those seem like small, obvious lessons, but that’s kind of the point. As I suspected all along, I was looking for something that you can’t hold onto, quantify, or discover. For me at least, the secret was to stop trying, start failing, and end each day as empty-handed as I started it. I’m reminded of one of my favorite hymns: “All that we have and all that we offer, comes from a heart both frightened and free. Take what we bring now, and give what we need. All done in His name.”