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Tuna Noodle Casserole

For weeks now, my laziness has gotten the better of me and I’ve been filling my body with what would be considered less wholesome choices—Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, and more McFlurries than I’d care to admit. I heat cans of soup, packet ramen, and a litany of “just add water” meals. I open paper and plastic and pressed foil to find the amalgamated products inside.

It’s true that in the midst of all this pseudo-food there have been a few real bowls of cereal, errant fried eggs, and even the stray banana covered in peanut butter, but on the whole, I haven’t been taking care of myself. It all just seems too hard.

I think that because I cooked professionally for much of my life, people assume that my meals at home consist of Tarragon-Scented Chicken Paillard, Miso-Glazed Salmon, and Roasted Chiogga Beets. “What’s your favorite thing to cook for yourself?” someone will ask, and while I imagine they think I’m going to answer with “homemade brioche” or “bouillabaisse” or maybe even “a perfectly executed meat loaf,” if I’m being honest, more often than not, the reality comes much closer to something like a frozen cheese pizza.

Blueberry Pop Tarts, Ruffles and onion dip, plastic tubs of tapioca pudding—when I am struggling to be that better version of myself that I want to be, that version I tell other people I am, these are the foods that I so often default to. I may try to cut up a cucumber or sit a handful of grapes next to my Ham & Cheese Hot Pocket, but often, even then, the consumption of said cucumbers and grapes turns into a Hail Mary intercepted at the last minute by a bag of BBQ Lays.

It’s so hard when we’re in despair to remember what goodness tastes like, to remember that we’ve had fruit from the vine and water from the well. And in our despair we think it’s just us, that we are the only people in the world who can polish off an entire can of Pringles while standing at our kitchen counters, or speed through half a box of thin mints without noticing—but then, even the Israelites, who were given manna, the very bread from heaven, longed to glutton themselves on quail.

We ate like this when I was a kid: Mt. Dew, frozen fish sticks with bottled tartar sauce, Totino’s Pizza Rolls.

Sleepovers at friends’ houses revealed that their parents made spaghetti, egg salad sandwiches, and baked potatoes with steamed broccoli. So, so often in my childhood, when all I wanted—when what we all wanted, really—was to fit in, to not feel so different, I was left feeling lacking.

There are, of course, the tastes we tell ourselves we’re supposed to want: grilled chicken breast, greek yogurt, kale smoothies. I circulate the idea of eating carrot sticks and hummus through my guilt-laden mind. It’s so easy to wish I was someone else, to want someone else’s shiny life, instead of sitting in the reality of my own: this life, my life, the one that I was given. I justify the coveting by conjuring the words of Paul to my lips, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of God?”

For a moment, I let myself revel in another lie, that “if I just ignore it, it will go away,” but when I sit in this grief of eating too many slices of pizza, the weariness of yet another fast food bean burrito, the pain is too acute to ignore and I don’t know if I can swallow another helping of shame. And yet, I do not know how to get from here to there, from trapped in my puddle of grief and diet Coke to the supposed high fiber celebration of the vitamin-dense super fruit waiting for me on the tree of life.

In Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon, there are recipes for saffron-infused bread, lobster soup, chicken paprikash, and, of course, many ways to cook lamb, but early on, before he gets into any of the fuss about how to make a saffron paste, sauté a lobster, or braise a lamb shank, Capon begins with, “I must first teach you how to deal with onions.”

They are the first step to so much cooking— boeuf bourguignon, arroz con pollo, a pot of potato soup. “It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions,” Julia Child once said.

“First, onions,” I think to myself.

It's so hard when we're in despair to remember what goodness tastes like, to remember that we've had fruit from the vine and water from the well. And in our despair we think it's just us—but then, even the Israelites, who were given manna, the very bread from heaven, longed to glutton themselves on quail. John Cal

I get up off the couch, go to the kitchen, open a drawer, and find my favorite chef knife. I grab its hilt and settle my grip gently on the bolster.

The motion comes automatically. I can recall so many onions in my life, so many beginnings—the onion that went into the first dinner I ever cooked for my family when I was five, an over-salted stir fry made edible by tempering it with larger heaps of steamed calrose rice. There were the onions that held up my first roast chicken at age ten. I misread the recipe and confused twenty minutes at 350℉ with twenty minutes per pound at 350℉. It’s still amazing to me how most things will work out with just a little more time. Sliced thin and raw with capers on chilled plates of gravlax, roasted alongside roma tomatoes for a summer soup, caramelized for my favorite dish of capellini and mushrooms, pickled with red cabbage for my friend Jackie’s wedding—I have faced so many onions before, and yet this one seems so very insurmountable.

“No one ever told me grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis. How hard it is each time we attempt to step out of that fog into brighter spaces, to try, even for a moment, to be slightly less afraid.

And yet, so many of those first scary steps have led me to this one, and as I slice halfway through the root end of this onion, the one in front of me, and begin to unfurl the layers of papery skin, the next step becomes a little clearer: dice two stalks of celery. When thirty seconds ago I found myself in such despair and the lesser voices in my mind were so loud in their rattlings, as my ideas became incarnated as actions, and as I not only knew I could peel and slice an onion, but did it—as I took the next step out of this pit I had dug for myself (and filled with fun-sized Snickers wrappers), the next step became evident, and then the next and then the next.

Soon the celery was diced, along with two cloves of garlic. I sliced a basket of button mushrooms, grated a few ounces of cheddar cheese, and buttered a cup of fresh bread crumbs. Enough light was getting through the cracks now to show me where I was going—Tuna Noodle Casserole.

My father doesn’t cook much—oatmeal, banana sandwiches, fried eggs—but he can make Tuna Noodle Casserole, and was happy to do it whenever I asked. While dinner simmered on the stove, he’d toast slices of white bread for sopping up the dregs of sauce and slather them with a thick layer of margarine. I am reminded that I am only here because I allowed myself to be taken care of, because in my weakness, others entered my life and took care of me.

If my father was cooking, he’d open a can of peas. He likes them mushy. I take some of the English variety from out of the freezer. I stir the pieces together: vegetables, noodles, sauce, and two cans of tuna. I top the lot with the breadcrumbs, and in the ensuing thirty minutes in the oven, I heat two bread rolls that I will later slather with generous helpings of butter for sopping up the sauce and go through the liturgy of setting the table for one. Yes, just for me.

When the breadcrumbs have browned and the sauce is gently bubbling around the edges, I take the casserole out and set it on the counter. It is still too hot to eat, but while waiting for my supper to cool, I call a friend—the next step.

“John! How’s it been going in Tennessee?” comes a bright voice on the other end.

“Hey Arthur, really rough actually. Been in a funk for a couple weeks now,” I say.

“Yeah?” Arthur replies. “Tell me more about that.”


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