It was hot in Southern California in July of 2008. Very hot. And making the heat even hotter, the entire state (read: the entire world) seemed to be on fire. Wildfires swept out of control throughout California. We citizens of Los Angeles were imprisoned inside our respective dwellings, glued to our central air, our window units, or at worst – our fans. During the smoky heat of day we did as the local news advised and tried not to breathe. We didn’t exercise. We shut our doors and windows; we drew our curtains and pulled our blinds, waiting out each day for the sun to set. With heavy hearts and asthmatic sighs, we waited for summer to burn itself out.
In my house things were bad. I’d just finished a quick course in culinary school – my attempt to distract myself from a sudden and sorry state of unemployment. I’d always been one of those lucky actors who actually worked – and often – but in July of 2008, just like the rest of the country, I was sweating in my sleep over my financial future. The bank market collapse was only weeks away and seemed as inevitable and dangerous as the wildfires, which crept onward, consuming both homes and chaparral like so much cash.
Unemployed, hot, and miserable, I spent the long summer days in my kitchen cooking, trying to escape my mind. Cooking was the only thing that made me happy. It used all my senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, even sound. And with all those functions firing, it was easy – well, easier – to forget my money problems. Cooking was a joyful-and-creative-in-the-face-of disaster way to fight back. I escaped my fears about paying the mortgage and the taxes through food! Had anyone ever thought of such a marvel?
In the kitchen I cooked Creole. I fought fiery heat with spicy heat and dreamed myself all the way to Louisiana. I made heady jambalayas with homemade chicken stock and burnt almond brown roux, Monday red beans and rice, rich okra gumbos, and etouffees. I put my whole body into my biscuit dough, then dropped and baked until each pillow-soft spoonful came out wrapped in a golden crunch. I saw every dish through from beginning to end and it felt wonderful to have at least the illusion of control over some aspect of my life.
But sadly, as all well-intended distractions from reality are destined, mine eventually landed me back smack in the center of my problems. The more I worried about money, the more I longed to escape; the more I longed to escape, the more I escaped into cooking; the more I escaped into cooking, the more I needed to buy groceries to cook with, which – uh oh — cost money… I had landed myself in a vicious cycle. I felt myself sharing the bond of addiction with my similarly afflicted brethren and sistern (sic.) in the world of substance abuse. Is there a multistep program for unemployed escapism-junkies addicted to gourmet cooking? Would I pose in my mug shot alone or with the saffron I would have had no choice but to steal? The vanilla pods? The local organic garlic? (Do you know how expensive saffron is?)
I took my concerns to the cutting board. Images haunted me: bar-codes cackled, price tags taunted. I pictured my poor forlorn checkbook, carrying fewer ones and zeroes than I’d ever asked it to before. I imagined the cost-dizzying farmers’ market that only took cash and the whole-paycheck grocery chain. Even the Super A at the bottom of the hill wouldn’t trade me fresh produce for – for what? A song? An old pair of socks? A handful of leaves?
I felt that telltale choke beginning to rattle the back of my throat, playing my uvula like a bagpipe. All at once the kitchen light seemed too bright. The heat reached a new high. I hung my head and fought the flood. Not being much of a crier, I took swift action and grabbed an onion from the fridge. Should anyone (like, say, my husband) find me here, a sad sack of human debris hunched over a scratched wooden cutting board, well, I wasn’t crying; I was just chopping onions.
Holding my knife and one scraggily yellow bargain-bin onion with fingers arched like a concert pianist, I sliced and let all the lovely propanethiol S-oxide rise right into my eyes. It burned and I imagined myself chopping every onion in the world: red onions, green onions, white onions, sweet onions, any onions I could think of. I chopped, sliced, minced, diced, chunked, cubed, and grated those onions – both real and imagined. And what a relief it was! My tears covered the cutting board and mingled with the mince. And so what if they did? Chopping onions legitimized my tears.
I let all the worry drain out of me. With the help of the onion’s enzyme, it seeped out like rain. And that’s when it hit me. Like a bolt of lightning, like the moment Michael Corleone first sees the fair Appolonia, like the thunderbolt – I knew where I could get fresh food for free!
Clearing my eyes with the back of my hand, I leaned on the sink and squinted through the window at the hill outside. There. Right there. Glorious fresh food was growing everywhere I looked. In my own yard were lemons, kumquats, apricots, tangerines, and plums – always in different stages of ripeness and readiness throughout the year – but they were there! Heck, everything grew on the hill – I’d seen it growing there. And maybe, like me, my neighbors weren’t using everything that they grew either. And maybe, like me, someone else on the hill had just cried their guts out over onions and would love to trade some of what I have, for some of what they have – for free? Yes – no money necessary! And maybe, just maybe, I could find a whole lot of people on the hill who might be worried about buying groceries right now and have a gourmet cooking addiction to feed – well, maybe not that second part so much – but, who doesn’t love free food? Free local organic food. Right here.
I put down my chef’s knife and let loose a huge sigh of relief. But I didn’t get much past the inhale before getting caught in a hacking cough. I’d forgotten the wildfires and their requisite protocol. The local news had warned me not to breathe. It was foolish to even attempt to sigh with relief. I laughed and coughed and laughed again – from the smoke and the onions and the ease I finally felt, until I rolled myself into a little ball and hugged my knees to my chest like a kid.