Build Back a Body

Just a few days before beginning to shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic this spring, I learned about the Korean concept of son mat, which means “the taste of one’s hands.” It’s the complex network of preferences, training, familial traditions, and tendencies (I’m heavy on the salt) that make one’s food taste unlike anyone else’s. I was at a conference, sitting in a cold convention center with my close friend, Claire, an amazing writer and an equally excellent cook who had recently become interested in the panel’s topic: food writing. Neither of us is Korean, but when a panelist, the food writer Noah Cho, described it, we both gasped in recognition. Son mat is the thing we’re often trying to articulate—when she’s describing her grandmother’s Puerto Rican fried chicken, or when I’m declaring which mom-and-pop has the best barbecue in town. It’s the thing we’re supposed to cultivate in order to snag good partners, or the thing that makes my friend Josh’s wassail taste like the simmering nectar of the gods.

The truth is that, at least up until now, my hands didn’t really have a taste. I’m the child of a mother who cooked often, but rarely taught us about how to do it, and I can’t blame her. My mother worked backbreaking jobs throughout my childhood: cafeteria worker, mail sorter at the post office, line worker at a trash bag factory. She also took care of her twin sister, who was disabled, and my sister and I weren’t exactly considerate, polite children. (Well, at least not to each other. We still aren’t.) My mother’s time in the kitchen might have been her few sweaty moments of peace in an otherwise overwhelming day, so, for the most part, she left us out of it. She did, however, conscript us into the rote tasks of holiday cooking: grating pounds of vegetables for cornbread dressing, or shelling (for pies) the pecans she got from family members’ trees, since store-bought pecans were outrageously expensive, even in Louisiana, where . . . they literally grow on trees. My hands would sting on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, covered in nicks from absentminded grating or intractable shells, and always smelling faintly of onion, even after a bath. I came into adulthood deeply indifferent about cooking: my favorite dishes tasted best when someone else made them (like Jack in the Box), and the thought of cooking for myself was as unpleasant as the miasma of chives wafting from my childhood knuckles.

And then one day, in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease: my body had begun attacking itself by attacking my digestive tract. I have my theories, and if I had to put money on them (and I do, sort of, since I pay out-of-pocket for my health insurance), I’d say this disease is my body’s awakening siren. The years before its onset were calendars filled with disaster: there was a rape I couldn’t admit happened until a friend told me about hers, and her story felt like she was reading my diary aloud. There was the man in the yellow car who tried to run me off the road in the middle of nowhere, who circled back around to call me “nigger” while I was checking my car for damage, too naive—or perhaps too optimistic—to understand the real danger wasn’t something that could be covered by auto insurance.

My body responded to these moments of unforeseen harm with a hypervigilance that invaded every part of my body, down to my viscera, and then traveled up, out, onto my skin.

My body responded to these moments of unforeseen harm with a hypervigilance that invaded every part of my body, down to my viscera, and then traveled up, out, onto my skin. When the doctors who diagnosed my illness prescribed biologics—which are created from living organisms, often using recombinant DNA technology—the medicines unleashed an explosive form of eczema: my hands, legs, and feet erupted into pustules that itched until they burst, taking the outermost layer of me with them. When I complained, the doctors prescribed different ones. It took eighteen months for them to realize that the culprit was a combination of the chemicals I pumped into my thigh once a week and my body’s own idiosyncratic way of rejecting them. In the meantime, I lost my hair; my fingernails yellowed and separated from their beds, peeling back like the skin of an orange. My ears filled with fluid. Whenever I complained, I was told to wait. Biologics can be dangerous for many reasons (weakening the immune system is only one of them), but they were prescribed for my eventual good; after all, they’d never done this to anyone my doctor had seen before. My body, Black and woman, was not special. It would eventually adjust. Meanwhile, austere brochures for cancer insurance began arriving in the mail, colored the blues, tans, and whites of the church fans the ladies used to wave during Sunday service back home. The fans were often printed with famous faces, like that of Martin Luther King, Jr., on one side, and advertised funeral homes on the other.

So it was no wonder that, even before the pandemic came, I was already so very, very tired of fighting my body’s enemies—internal and otherwise. I was so eager to sit in one place and take a breath.

When Claire called for the fifth time after we left San Antonio, where the conference was held, to tell me to stock up on canned goods and dog food, or to just forget all that and head to Nebraska, where she now lives while pursuing her PhD, I laughed. And when she said, during one of her many come-to-Jesus (or, rather, go-to-Kroger) conversations, “In case the apocalypse comes, we should also learn how to shoot,” I laughed again. And when she added, “Wait, no. Since I can’t drive, you can be the driver, and I’ll be our protection. I can learn to shoot from the car window,” we both laughed, because we are Black and Brown girls who are so vulnerable that such a plan is both heartbreakingly necessary and completely impossible. We aren’t safe anywhere, not even at home, but any cop who saw us careening down a flyover-country highway with a semiautomatic hanging out of the passenger window isn’t gonna give us a chance to explain why we’re running; he’s gonna kill us before we can switch lanes. Even so, I pretended to hear her, and I pretended to consider leaving. But I am not leaving. Not because I’m ignorant, or don’t believe that the world (at least as we know it) is ending. I’m not listening because I’m too tired to move. I’m too tired of being frantically afraid to die.

I know my body can take a repeated mistake. I’ve done as much to it with so much else—sun exposure, men—patting myself on the back when I come out unscathed.

Furthermore, the mere mention of stockpiling crackers and ramen, and daily downing soggy green beans and waterlogged chickpeas that taste faintly of metal, curdles my stomach into that familiar gurgle. The thing is, when I eat indiscriminately, I pay dearly, especially now. I’ve been off all my medicines—the ones that harmed me and the ones that did the work of healing me from that harm—for a year and a half now, opting instead for a more holistic approach to my care: consistent rest; a gluten-, dairy-, and soy-free diet. But even so, I’m notorious for breaking my own rules. Chunks of Gouda. Margherita pizza and gelato. I’ve eaten a thing again and again, just to make sure it’s really forbidden. I know my body can take a repeated mistake. I’ve done as much to it with so much else—sun exposure, men—patting myself on the back when I come out unscathed. But, on the phone, I make one promise aloud to Claire, and one silently to myself. The first is to head to the store, and the second is to try to “live right” by this quarantine, and see how long I can go without the foods that trigger my symptoms. Unfortunately, some of those foods—bread, real cheese, red wine—are the ones that make life delicious.

Fortunately, one of the gifts of my life is having friends who know how to cook. Joshua, the king of international cuisine, makes Korean spicy noodles that make me tear up, not only from the spice, but because they’re just so damn good. Tafisha’s mother passed on to her her famous baked macaroni, which I can modify with vegan cheese and nutritional yeast if I so desire (and I’ll be honest, some days I don’t desire—it’s not the same!). And Claire makes oxtail, a dish I loved enough pre-pandemic to drive almost downtown, past the gentrified streets closing in on my alma mater, past the dainty bakeries and coffee shops with tables made from repurposed barn doors, to the Caribbean restaurant in the old farmer’s market to pick up a Styrofoam box that leaked gravy onto my passenger floorboard, and that cost me sixteen dollars before the tip. But I am often disappointed by the portions, or the ratio of edible meat to fatty chunks, which I roll around in my mouth until I’ve sucked off all the flavor, then throw to my occasionally (and eagerly) carnivorous dog.

So, on one of my designated grocery days, Josh and I don our masks and meet at the international market, the only place to get quality oxtail, as well as dried squid and sweet potato vermicelli. Just across from the meat counter, I pull out my phone in search of a year-old email, one Claire sent while I was ambitiously trying to finish a fiction manuscript and was eating hot bar wings and potato wedges from Publix. I forward it to Josh, and we begin a leisurely and respectfully distant amble though the aisles in search of ingredients, tossing them into each other’s baskets when one of us finds them first, and making recommendations to each other for snacks and hot sauces from around the world. It’s a way for us to be together, even Claire, who texts her encouragement as I search a shelf crowded with dried herbs, some of which I’ve never even heard of.

The rising steam and the memory of her voice with its Staten Island swagger warm my face, and I smile into the pot before I cover it.

At home, I rub thyme, allspice, and paprika into each disc of meat, still stiff with cold and now gritty with salt. The spices stain my hands, reminding me of a past life, one in which I grated—and ate—with abandon. I let the meat rest (as my mother says) on a scratched yellow plate while I sauté the vegetables. I double-check the recipe, which I have printed and stuck to the refrigerator. Definitely an onion! writes Claire. Definitely garlic! People also put carrots and celery. When I text to tell her I’m building the broth, she writes, A tablespoon of ketchup and soy sauce go a long way to deepen the flavor. I fish out a few packets from old takeout and measure them in. Enjoy, my love, ends the email. The rising steam and the memory of her voice with its Staten Island swagger warm my face, and I smile into the pot before I cover it. In the next few hours, the air thickens with flavor, like the gravy, and halfway through hour 3, when I taste it to see if I should add more liquid or salt, the first note is rich with thyme, but has a sweet finish, a word I learned from Josh one night as he freestyled a cocktail by mixing sugar-free energy drinks with cucumber-flavored vodka.

Have you ever bitten into something that tastes like love? Or like home? Like the smell of red dirt and pine trees and Sundays when your mother put beef-tips in the crockpot, and shuffled you off to church in your itchy stockings with your hair glistening with Blue Magic, and you come home sweaty, either from the Holy Ghost or from riding in a car with no air-conditioning, and you have the whole afternoon ahead of you, so you change into your play clothes while your mother moves around in the kitchen, clanging pots and pans? If she’s soon distracted in another room—maybe taking care of your aunt—you have just enough time to sneak into the kitchen and slip a slice of white bread from the bagged loaf, the Sunbeam girl grinning at you from the crinkled plastic as you retwist the tie. Then carefully, and without clattering it, you lift the lid from the crockpot and dip the slice of bread into the gravy, because dinner will be served soon and all you need is a little taste. It’s like touching the hem of a rich garment. And maybe the hem of the garment is what human love is: flustered sometimes, yes, and flawed, but adjacent to the Divine, made by hands that will one day die, but took time out of their allotted years to make a meal that fills you with something that will keep you alive.

Now, imagine an older you, marked by time and tragedy, whittled into a sharper version of your girl self, who has the whole pot to herself: no sharing with aunt or sister, no Mama hovering, doling out the portions so they last. Everything is yours, and you can have it whenever you want. That’s what I taste when I slide a morsel of homemade oxtail from my fork, and the meat and the fat and the meaty fat dissolve in my mouth. Oxtail is one of those dishes where there’s really no right or wrong way to season it (although Jamaicans and Southerners might try to convince you otherwise), so the only thing I can tell you is that when someone makes it for you, or when you make it, and when you share it or eat it alone, it should make you feel like someone gathered the strength of their hands to make something for you that says love. Perhaps they are doing it in a place where oxtail is expensive and hard to find, or they had to go out looking for it in a food desert, or they made it for you because the gentrified restaurant up the street is serving it at thirty bucks a plate and pairing it with some bullshit like elderflower jelly or rice and peas that are literally rice and peas. It’s important to remember that oxtail, like chitterlings, like tripe and pig’s feet, is a part of the animal that, traditionally, no one wanted. Think of all the hands that grappled with that truth, and then grappled with rendering that meat edible and tender, that meat that was thrown to them and theirs like scraps. When I think of this, I think of the scriptures we were forced to memorize at children’s church during those Sunday services, especially the ones about the lengths people go for those they love—like the story of the paralyzed man whose friends brought him to see Jesus in the hope that he’d be healed, but because the house was so crowded, they couldn’t get in. In desperation, they lowered him inside through a hole they made in the roof. That’s how I feel when I cook and eat food like this, food that doesn’t harm me, but facilitates my health. Food that was originally considered the exact opposite of healthy, but that defies those expectations. That’s how I feel when my friends show me how to do it.

I feel decadent receiving this kind of love, which I’m lucky enough to have, even now, in my sometimes lonely apartment with the probably racist downstairs neighbor in a city in a state where black women are dying all the time, even while giving birth—and so are their babies. At the same time, I feel swaddled in this little nest I’ve made for myself, cut off by miles and singlehood and the familial estrangements that have made impossible the tactile togetherness some folks are now desperate to escape. I’ve certainly been loved through food before; my mother cooked for us, and often made food choices (like skim milk and ground turkey) that were designed to gear us toward health. But now there are limitations on that love. My mother, who makes the annual declaration that she’s outdone herself with this year’s sweet potato pie or gumbo, can’t make a moist gluten free cake to save her life. But every year, a week after Christmas, she tries, because the thought of me baking my own birthday cake is an insult. I eat her uncharacteristically dry-ass cake and say nothing. She has always done the cooking, and doing it now is a way to love me whenever I am close by.

We trade photos of what we make: Hot pepper peach japchae! boasts Josh in the group chat, captioning an exquisite photo of a benoodled bowl garnished with what might be Thai basil.

However, I’ve never been loved through the sharing of cooking in a way that empowers me to make food on my own until now, when it has become one of the many iterations of my relationship with Josh and Claire during shutdown. We trade photos of what we make: Hot pepper peach japchae! boasts Josh in the group chat, captioning an exquisite photo of a benoodled bowl garnished with what might be Thai basil (like I said, I’m still learning). Claire sends a photo of her garden, vowing to plant mint to keep the squirrels away. The next time I make oxtail, I add a jalapeño in absence of the habanero Claire suggested for heat, and later, I use leftover peppers to make hand-breaded poppers stuffed with vegan cheese spread (eat your heart out, Jack in the Box). I also try my hand with Josh’s noodles, throwing in whatever I have on hand: shrimp and egg and spinach. Girl, that makes you a cook! replies Claire when I send a photo. When you start to improvise like that, that is the mark of a cook.

I grin and look around my apartment. Everything in here is improvised, including my life. When I lost my job last year, I decided that, for as long as I could, I would only do work that brought me joy: writing, talking about writing, reading, editing, teaching writing at a local co-op, and occasionally making stuff around the house. The month after leaving work, I took one look at my peeling leather couch and said, Yellow velvet pillows would be nice. So I made them as a replacement for the back cushions, and covered the seats with red slipcovers, buying a teal carpet to (not really) match. The new decor jibes perfectly with a Xavier Payne print above the fireplace: it’s a scene from my favorite sitcom, Martin, where the eponymous star fumes in the foreground while his girlfriend’s bestie, Pam, taunts him, her hand held high like a matador. His best friends Tommy and Cole look on, while Brother Man rifles through the fridge in the background. Every inch of that scene is awash in the ROYGBIV palette of my childhood, the ’90s, the last decade I remember being as happy as I am in this one. I’ve let those colors bleed into the rest of the room, and it has become my most favorite place I’ve ever lived. This is further bolstered by the screened-in porch with an enormous bean bag chair that I paid another writer for with copies of two poetry anthologies in which I was featured. I spend quiet mornings on it, sipping decaf chai with coconut milk while journaling, as the evergreens that canopy my corner of the building shimmer under the weight of squirrels leaping between them, and the wild geese that populate the apartment complex’s lake honk and chase each other in the distance.

Who’s playing games? she asks, throwing down the gauntlet. The answer? No one is. Not the cops. Not doctors. Not me. But I am practicing something else: deep quiet, and quiet joy.

Here, I think sometimes of Mary Oliver, who thought about things I rarely put in poems, like geese, and who wrote so simply yet so astutely about the world around her. One of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day,” is, among other things, about a grasshopper eating sugar from the palm of the poet’s hand, her strange jaws working it down in her own way. That’s me, I think to myself: I’m figuring it out as I go (see Lucille Clifton), eating from generous hands, washing my eczema-free face at the end of each day, a ritual that is its own prayer. I know that I am, like they say, safer at home, but only marginally so. I’m part of a demographic predisposed, according to numerous studies, to dying first and fastest. I might develop a cough tomorrow and a doctor could take one look at my BMI and decide I’m too “high-risk” to intubate. I might, like Breonna Taylor, be shot to death in my own bed due to a (now illegal) no-knock warrant served on the wrong house. I think of Tafisha’s refrain when we joke about the transgressive things we fantasize about doing in the future: Who’s playing games? she asks, throwing down the gauntlet. The answer? No one is. Not the cops. Not doctors. Not me. But I am practicing something else: deep quiet, and quiet joy. In the last lines of “The Summer Day,” Oliver asks: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” I’m pretty sure that when she wrote it, she wasn’t thinking of a Black girl filled with mercurial white blood cells living in a red state who is just now learning to love herself one bite of nourishing food at a time. But I don’t care. I’ll use whatever I can to survive. That’s me not playing games.

Because the truth of the matter is, no matter how many laps I make around the lake, watching the deer watch me across the algae-thick water, or marveling as a blue heron dips into seamless flight, this is not a vacation. It’s a readying for battle. Every morsel I eat, every step I clock around the complex is a calculated attempt to improve my chances. I have come to treat my body like the food I prepare: perishable and precious. I’m careful when making oxtail because my budget is thin, and oxtail is too expensive to screw up. I have to keep that same energy with myself. So I pay attention. I want to come out of this all right. Every day, I head to the fridge, spooking the dog by pulling its heavy door toward her, because she’s not supposed to be in my kitchen anyway. I stare for a minute, then start fishing for what’s inside, my palate inspired, my instincts sharp, my hands itching to season.