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How cooking fixed my broken heart

How cooking fixed my broken heart
As Lauren-Byrne's relationship faltered, she found refuge, and a fresh start, in the kitchen.
Almost every childhood memory I have is centred on food. Telling stories around a crowded table at holiday dinners, the smell of roasting vegetables, the sensation of heat coming from the kitchen, all conjure a familiar feeling of love and comfort.
My favourite memory of all is of my grandfather kneading dough. When my grandmother’s illness left her weakened, she was determined to maintain a sense of normality and continued to bake several loaves of bread every week. I remember watching her, a colourful scarf covering her bald head, a cloud of flour above her, filling a bowl with ingredients that she measured by feeling—a recipe that was never written down but that she knew by heart. She would mix the set of ingredients until it came together and then turn it out onto the kitchen table, where my grand­father would roll up the sleeves of his dress shirt, remove his wedding ring and begin to work the dough.
Together, they would bake all the bread that they needed for the week: ample loaves that rose high above the pan, that my grandmother would bless before tucking into the oven.
kneading dough to make bread
After she died in 2002, my grand­father never made bread again. To this day, I have never tasted bread that was as good as theirs. No other loaf I have come across has ever been made with that kind of powerful, unconditional love.
When my husband came to me in December 2017, shortly after Christmas, and told me he wasn’t happy, that he thought he wanted to separate, I felt despair. We had been together for nine years, married for seven. We had two children, a home and a dog. On paper, we were perfect. But sometimes perfection becomes mundane, and love begins to fade.
"I attempted to cauterise my open wounds in the kitchen"
When love was about to be taken away, I realised that for me, mundanity was disguised as happiness all along. I didn’t have the skills to cope with the distress I felt. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. I had two children to look after, so I couldn’t drown my sorrows in alcohol. Instead, I did what I knew how to do. I cooked.
I pored over cookbooks. The more complicated the recipe, the less likely I was to have time to think about the disaster my life had become. Over the next few months, as my husband made plans to move out, I attempted to cauterise my open wounds in the kitchen.
preparing soup
I enjoyed the solitude as I fried Brussels sprouts in bacon fat and butter. I battered chicken and stirred a honey-­garlic sauce and revelled in the control I had while standing over the stove. On exceptionally cold days, I switched to soup. Thick chowder with chunks of fresh fish and generous amounts of cream. Cracked black pepper sprinkled over it and crusty bread on the side to soak up the remnants.
Every day was full of uncertainty. The only things I knew for sure were that 5pm would come, and we all had to eat. And I always knew we would sit at the table as a family for supper.
Cooking was cathartic. I purged my body of sadness and anger and fear, and I used those emotions to create beautiful meals. I aggressively minced garlic and crushed tomatoes. I used cayenne when rage filled me. Brown sugar when sadness washed over me. Vinegar when I felt bitter. Whatever emotion I tossed into our meals only made them more delicious. One evening, over a simmering Bolognese, I began to feel that we would all be okay, no matter the outcome. That I would survive this.
cooking brought them together
As time wore on, my husband began to inquire about suppers. These conversations began to feel somewhat normal. He started spending time in the kitchen, at first as a spectator, but soon chopping peppers for pasta or incorporating spices into ground beef for meatloaf. Because we were in such close quarters, we talked as we cooked. Initially, cooking together felt robotic. But it slowly turned into a new dance we were learning the steps to. His original plan was to move out on the 1st of March—he knew of a place close to our family home that would become available on that date. March 1st came and went. He did not.
"Initially, cooking together felt robotic. But it slowly turned into a new dance we were learning the steps to"
In the spring I delved into barbecue. Together we made burgers stuffed with pepper jack cheese and seasoned with roasted garlic that he’d grill while I simmered beer and bacon jam to spread on the buns. Conversations had become easy again. We’d chat about our day as we peeled vegetables and mixed sauces, occasionally brushing elbows; he’d place his hands on my waist as he passed me to get to the fridge.
By May, he had begun making reservations at restaurants we’d never been to. We’d sip wine and craft beer over five-course meals we would never have tried before. We’d talk for hours. No awkward pauses. No conflict. Conversations broken only by the arrival of caramelised onion tart, bouillabaisse and laughter.
couple enjoying wine
On Christmas morning, he handed me a roughly wrapped gift: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child. The weight of both the book and its meaning lay heavily in my lap. Sitting there, surrounded by mountains of torn paper, two squealing children, tears streaming down my cheeks and with my husband by my side, I knew that we had come full circle. Plain work had saved our marriage, but the food had healed our souls.
His gift was the beginning of a new adventure, to be filled with trial and error, effort, commitment and love. Seasoned heavily with laughter and an occasional argument to taste.
I’m looking forward to coq au vin and chocolate soufflé, in between rustic homemade pizzas and chocolate chip cookies. I now know we have a lifetime of both love and cooking ahead of us, and who knows? Maybe one day, we’ll even tackle bread.
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