I once made a salad in the car – while driving. Right before I walked out the door, I remembered there was a carry-in lunch at work to celebrate a birthday. I ran back in the kitchen and grabbed a head of lettuce, two carrots, and a tomato Then I picked up a knife and sprinted to the car. Shredding lettuce while going 60 miles an hour was easy. Chopping up veggies was the hard part. At first, I only cut at red lights. But as it got later and later, I realized I was going to have to start driving – and dicing -- faster.
I pulled in the parking lot and looked at the mess in the teak wood bowl. Tears welled in my eyes. I picked up the bowl, and said aloud, “My life is out of control.”
Did I mention I was having an affair with a guy at work? And that I was desperate to maintain a sense of dignity, normalcy, and not let on to anyone there that I was falling apart?
That afternoon, as I went down the buffet line, I winced when I came to my bowl. No one had taken any of it. No wonder. My salad looked like a Lunchable sitting beside caviar. One woman had brought Salad Nicoise. When I looked at the complex beauty of potatoes, peppers, and hard-boiled eggs, I saw in exquisite detail exactly what my life was lacking.
I tried to dismiss her as a middle-aged matron who had nothing better to do than make hard boiled eggs on a Sunday night. But truth be told, I realized as I scooped up mouthful after mouthful of her delicious salad and listened to everyone else at the table “ooh” and “ahh” at its taste, I wanted nothing more than to be like her.
I imagined a cook who stayed home, planning her menus and grocery lists together on a Sunday afternoon. I saw her serving dinner to her family on a large mahogany table at 5:30 p.m. with candles lit and the TV off. I saw linen napkins and matching silverware. I envisioned her lunching with her two precious children on a terrace instead of swinging alone, through a drive through four nights a week.
I envied her planned, calm, deliberate nourishment, instead of the haphazard, chaotic, sprawl and brawl of my life. To me, food was simply a by-product, an additive. I had convinced myself that I was living a “bigger” life, where food does not take center stage, or center table. I tried to believe that I was writing the Great American Novel and having the Great Love Affair, and my attentions lay elsewhere (in his arms, as a matter of fact). So busy with living up to the persona of being the Other Woman and A Writer, I had little time to taste the life I was actually leading. I was so afraid of facing up to the fact that it might indeed be bland, that I completely skipped meals altogether.
And I was hungry.
I realized that I feared being “normal,” and average, and base enough that food matters to me. I had considered myself above that. That attitude was not restricted to just food. I remember one time when a friend recommended a romantic novel that was a current bestseller. “You’d love it, “she said. “It’s so you.”
I was actually insulted. As an English teacher, I read fine literature (say it with a British accent) not New York Times Bestsellers. But when I finally broke down and read it, I did love it. I devoured the pages, and then I went and bought every other book by that author. Over the next month, reading became easy and fun again.
Perhaps, I thought, cooking could be like that. Perhaps I could slow down, be normal, and plan meals. Perhaps I could feed myself, instead of gorging.
I considered what else I might have to look forward to in my more reasoned world. I envisioned paying bills on time, maybe even before they were due. I might plant roses out back. And then I could put them in a vase, in the middle of the table, as a centerpiece. Maybe I would go for walks, instead of to the gym, trading a little quiet for my calorie-consuming marathons on the treadmill with a headset on. I would write in a coffee shop instead of in bed, crying, after he left to go back to his wife.
Ten years later, it is still not easy to admit that. It is still embarrassing to write about the salad fiasco. I have used it for some good though. It has been a gauge for me in the decade since. When I’m multi-tasking to the point of madness, I stop and think, “Am I getting near the point of making a salad in the car again?” If the answer is yes, I slow down.
Of course, that change has not been easy. There are days that I still inhale a protein shake for dinner so there won’t be any dishes. The server at Subway knows my name and my order by heart. But I own matching dishes, and in fact, this year, I bought Christmas dishes that I will use when I host the holiday party. I will serve gnocchi, a potato-based pasta, that I make from scratch. You expected me to say that I would make Salad Nicoise, didn’t you? No, that dish still brings back painful memories. I have never made it, and I never will. For while that elegant entrée brought clarity and normalcy to my life, it also brought loss and regret that has left a bitter, bitter aftertaste, even ten years later.
For that night, my lover asked what dish I had brought to the carry-in lunch. I sighed. “I’m glad you asked. I made the other salad.”
"We need to talk," I said.