How to Cook an Aching Heart by Aileen Suzara ’06

Aileen Suzara ’06 is a Filipina/American educator, cook, eco-activist, farmer and adobo champion. While completing a B.A. in Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College, she fell in love with the power of story to highlight and to create change–from the voices of climate change fighters to the stories of California’s farmworkers. Aileen’s writing appears in The Colors of Nature, Earth Island Journal, Growing Up Filipino, Hyphen, and more. She blogs on food, farming, and place at Kitchen Kwento..    

As an undergraduate student, I realized with dismay that I was not meant to be a biologist. I was more interested in biology’s sweeping narratives of evolution, adaptation and attraction than in following good lab protocol. But many years later, there is one lesson that I remember as mystical. It’s a process as familiar to the home cook as it is to the researcher.

There are some proteins that change their structure through exposure to heat, or a compound like salt or acid. Take away the change agent, though, and it reverts back to origins. Yet for other proteins, once exposed at a certain threshold they never return. We can see this as lime juice seeps in and “cooks” tender raw fish into kinilaw, or in that quick flash of an egg hitting a hot pan. This second cooking is about total transformation, disruption so complete there is no going back.

It’s a process called “denaturing,” although it is natural. The reversible kind is found in certain foods I don’t care much for—like Jell-O, an uncertain liquid and solid thing. Many foods I do love, like kinilaw or a frittata, are examples of the latter. They deliciously exist, made possible by complete surrender to a new form and way of being. Technical as denaturing sounds, this process of complete transformation is a somewhat romantic and a very human story. It’s hopeful. And scary. Complete surrender to a new and even unnamed shape? Sometimes the ambivalence of Jell-O seems a lot safer than the irrevocable change of a frittata.

And this takes me to the inspiration for this post, to the questionings on love that have surfaced and followed me from the kitchens to the fields to the subways.

Love, that active ingredient, is like a kitchen fire, salt, or vinegar. If we allow ourselves to be cooked, it can be scary to knowingly offer all that we are, uncertain if it will end in something scrumptious or just…charred.

Truth is, it takes more than the sheer force of that powerful ingredient for transformation to occur. It takes a substance willing to take it all in. It takes knowing that afterwards the change will be permanent, even when that ingredient is gone.

Tonight is a glad but aching place. I am learning anew how to cook with this heart I have. I am learning how wholeness and brokenness are kindred, how the pained heart reflects a capacity to feel, how the risk of change is outweighed by the danger of becoming numb and tasteless.

Cooking with an aching heart is about staying present. It is to continue even when the knife slips onto a naked finger. It is to clean up the blood but get back to the kitchen again, putting aside trepidation. To cook with an aching heart is to fearlessly peel roots and reveal what’s really under the skin. It is to dice onions that make you cry, squeeze lemons despite their wince, and balance out sweetness with salty, bitter and sour.

Sometimes (and this is the hardest to learn) cooking with an aching heart is to discern when something just doesn’t taste right and there’s nothing to blame but the broken oven. It is to cook for the entire neighborhood and eat mouthfuls stolen between moments. And as night approaches, to doggedly prepare a meal for one, to somehow receive nourishment until finally, finally inviting the beloved guest for dinner.

This entry was posted in Creative Nonfiction, Food Issue 2013 and tagged , , , , , , by Sandi Sonnenfeld. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in New York's glorious Hudson Valley with her husband and the two of the world's most playful cats.

3 thoughts on “How to Cook an Aching Heart by Aileen Suzara ’06

  1. Wow, such a powerful, beautiful piece. Go ahead and cry over those onions, then refresh and be open to that recipe that works magic.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Beth 😉 I spent two seasons crying over the onions and getting burned by chilis…and hopefully am now on to cooking other parts of the magic menu!

  2. Pingback: What are you reading? | THE LYON REVIEW

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