(CW: Anxiety, mentions of abuse, alcoholism and biphobia)
The smoke alarm was blaring through the apartment. Again.
In between coughs, Lauren let out a string of expletives that would make Gordon Ramsay blush as she frantically turned all the stove’s dials to zero. How ironic for a professional chef like her, she thought as she removed the pan of burnt leeks and somehow still undercooked carrots from the heat, that there was that one meal she could never get right. The family heirloom recipe, no less.
She flung open the window and wafted a tea towel around, shivering from the blast of January air she’d let in. The fumes seemed no less thick no matter how she tried to flap them away, making her eyes water.
“Jesus!” Over the unrelenting whine of the alarm, she heard Alyssa’s voice, and hurried footsteps. “That’s one impressive smoke bomb.”
Lauren’s splutters became laughter, which in turn gave way to panicked shortness of breath. “Just once,” she panted, leaning towards the window and inhaling throat-stinging air in an attempt to calm down. “Y-You’d think Great Gram’s winter root soup would turn out right just one fucking time.” The alarm finally stopped, but the stench lingered, a reminder of her failure. Flinging the cloth onto the work surface, Lauren gripped the window ledge and forced herself to breathe in, then out, slowly and steadily.
She shouldn’t be this worked up over a ruined meal of all things, she chided herself. She needed to get over herself before she said something she regretted. That was her worst fear, that she’d end up lashing out at a loved one.
Hands gripped her shoulders, gently massaging the tension from them. Lauren sighed a puff of mist and leaned back, letting her wife wrap her arms around her. As always, she wondered how Alyssa put up with a nervous wreck like her.
“Sorry. I wasn’t mad at you,” she explained. “I was mad at… The oven gremlins. They really don’t like that soup.” She managed a weak laugh. ‘Oven gremlins’ was a term she and her work colleagues used when something went wrong. If her anger was directed at anyone, though, it was herself.
Alyssa chuckled. “The little pests.” When she continued, her voice was softer. “Maybe they’ve picked up that you don’t have the best memories associated with family meals.”
Closing the window, Lauren sighed. “Not going to lie. That one especially.” Smells and tastes, she’d read, were two of the most evocative sensations. The scent of that particular meal no longer reminded her of her great grandmother, of whom she had vague yet fond childhood memories, in which she’d listened to her tell stories. It no longer reminded her of her grandfather, who’d take her for walks in the snow before cooking the hearty winter dish. Instead, it reminded her of sitting hunched at the table, trying to block out the argument between her parents.
She could almost hear the thud of her father’s wine glass against the table, his yells at her mother about how supposedly disappointing her cooking was, that he’d have to make more of the family meals if she was going to keep serving up this slop, that she really shouldn’t be eating so much crème fraiche if she was going to stay slim for him. With each passing year, alcohol’s grip on him grew tighter, and with it, his moods sourer. One time, Lauren had spoken up, saying there was nothing wrong with the food. That was when his volatility had peaked. Shouting that he wouldn’t trust the judgement of someone who couldn’t even decide whether she was into guys or girls, he’d leaned across the table and slapped her so hard she’d almost fallen from her chair.
“It’s been a while though, so there’s no excuse.” Her gaze drifted to the window. “Sorry Great Gram. Just thought it’d be fitting for your birthday.” While she didn’t believe in an afterlife, she valued remembrance of and respect towards the deceased nonetheless. “Nothing to do but give it another try, and hope the gremlins don’t interfere.”
“Hey, if they don’t like it,” Alyssa said, giving Lauren’s upper arms an affectionate rub, which offset the lingering chill. “Or more importantly, if you don’t, I’m sure she’d understand if you cooked something else.”
Lauren hoped Alyssa wouldn’t feel the slight tensing of her muscles. In many ways, their differences made them a fitting match – her with her highly-strung perfectionist attitude, and laid-back Alyssa who wore mismatched slippers around the flat along with, much of the time, a warm smile. Yet Alyssa wasn’t so big on tradition. For the most part, Lauren admired how her wife liked to buck trends – this was the woman who’d worn bright pink on their wedding day while Lauren had gone for classic white – but in situations like this, she feared their opposing views would drive a rift between them.
“She probably would, but… I just want to do this for her,” she explained. “And for Grandad. And for Mum, even if she doesn’t exactly like this meal anymore.”
“Can’t say I blame her, or you.” Alyssa paused. “Hmmm… I might have an idea, though, of how to defeat the oven gremlins.”
“Ohh?” Lauren turned her head, eyes swivelling towards Alyssa.
“I understand if you don’t want to do this, but would switching up the ingredients help?” Alyssa suggested. “After all, does your family sometimes make changes to the recipe if, say, someone’s vegan or allergic to dairy?”
“They do, but…” Lauren mulled it over. “That’s only because it’s necessary for health or lifestyle reasons.” Her eyes shifted to the floor tiles. “Sorry. I-I hope that didn’t sound rude. I agree it’d work great with different ingredients, but it just… Wouldn’t be Great Gram’s recipe.”
Judging by Alyssa’s laugh, she hadn’t taken offense. “Nah, it’s fine. Think of it this way though, in this case it’d also technically be for health reasons. And isn’t it more the preparation technique than the ingredients that make it her signature dish?”
Lauren hesitated before nodding. On a rational level, she knew mental health was just as important as physical health, but internalised prejudice was difficult to overcome. “You’ve got me there.” Taking another deep breath, she raised her head and squared her shoulders. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. In any case, it’d be a better birthday dinner than lumps of charcoal.”
With that, they set about searching the fridge and cupboards for replacement vegetables. It still didn’t quite sit well with her, the thought of taking someone else’s creation and making it hers instead of theirs, but she reminded herself Alyssa was right, Great Gram most likely would understand. They finally decided on sweet potatoes instead of regular ones, red onions instead of leeks, and fresh ginger instead of turnips. In Alyssa’s words, there was nothing quite like warming winter spice.
It was during the cooking phase that Lauren’s guilt eased, evaporating with the water boiling in the pot. The trick was to lightly sauté the onions and carrots first, letting them infuse with the garlic and herbs while bringing out their sweetness. There was no secret ingredient, as people always joked. Just a simple yet effective technique.
And this time, neither the sight nor smell brought back any painful memories. This was still Great Gram’s heirloom at its core, yet it was a different spin on it, a version that had never been ruined by her father’s toxic attitude.
She still half expected something to go wrong, but the vegetables turned out soft and fragrant, smoothing into a creamy golden soup under the hand blender. She dipped in a spoon and blew on the liquid before taking a sip. Sweeter and tangier than the meal she knew, yet it still had that underlying caramelised taste, familiar in a comforting rather than disquieting way. “Not too bad,” she commented, “if I do say so myself.”
Grabbing bowls from the cupboard, Alyssa grinned. “Take that, oven gremlins!”
As they set out bowls, cutlery and glasses, Lauren actually found herself looking forward to the supper. Her stomach growled with hunger that hadn’t been there half an hour ago. They took their seats, and Lauren smiled as she raised her glass of non-alcoholic white wine.
“Happy birthday, Great Gram.”