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  • Dani Fontanesi

How I Taught Myself to Love Cooking

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

My journey to the kitchen was an interesting one -- non-traditional, you could say. Prior to Matt's diagnosis, I had a love-hate relationship with the kitchen. Just kidding. There was no love involved. The kitchen and I were arch enemies.

I had few recipes in my repertoire, and most of them involved either throwing a salad together, or adding toppings to my ice cream (in most cases, milk. Yes, I'm a weirdo who likes to pour milk over my ice cream and make it into some kind of dessert cereal. Matt's thinks it's disgusting, but he just doesn't know what tasty goodness is.)

I also knew how to bake salmon (one of my fave dinner foods). I'd sprinkle it with salt and pepper, drizzle some olive oil (one of my other favorite food groups) over the baking sheet, and pop it in the oven at 425ºF for 12 minutes or so. Voila! Dinner was served!

So that was the extent of knowledge in the kitchen: salmon, salad, and pouring milk over ice cream. If ever I had to prepare a meal, you could be certain it would involve one or -- in most cases -- all of the above. My roommate in law school probably saw me make this meal 100 times. Sometimes I would get super fancy and add some sauteed portobello mushrooms to my salad (another favorite food group). Other times, I would slice up some avocado to top it off.

(Side note: As I was preparing this exact meal one evening during law school, I was Skyping with one of my friends from Brazil. We were chatting away and he seemed completely oblivious to what I was doing as I threw together my token salad. I sliced the avocado in front of him, and as I went to place it on top of my salad, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and protested in disgust, "What are you doing?!" He had a look of disgust on this face, but I had no idea what he was referring to until he explained to me that I was absolutely maniacal for putting avocado on a salad -- a savory dish. In Brazil, avocados are a dessert food and would never EVER be put on a salad. I was mind-blown. As was he.)

So anyway, I was never going to be a Martha Stewart in the kitchen, but lucky for me, Matt knew his way around the kitchen quite well and actually enjoyed cooking. So we had an agreement: he would take kitchen duties, and I would take cleaning duties.

This arrangement worked out quite well for many years, and I never had to learn a thing about cooking -- that is, until Matt got sick.

Following Matt's diagnosis with leukemia and his subsequent bone marrow transplant, we had to live in medically prescribed isolation for a year because he was severely immunocompromised. ("Immunocompromised" is just a fancy word essentially meaning that he had no immune system and any exposure to germs or bacteria could kill him. Yeah, scary. Very scary.) This meant that we had to avoid contact with other people for the most part, except to see our doctors, or friends and family (provided that they were 100% germ-free and didn't have the slightest hint of any cold or other bug. We had very strict rules about visitors, which meant that people didn't visit very often, and when they did, they didn't stay long. The anxiety of potentially getting Matt sick was too much for all of us).

Living in medically-prescribed isolation had lots of challenges, not the least of which was that all meals had to be prepared by me -- or by someone very close to us who was intimately familiar with all the rules around Matt's food. He couldn't have anything that could potentially have any germs or bacteria. This meant that, for the most part, everything had to be cooked very thoroughly and eaten right away. For the most part, we had to stay away from raw fruits and vegetables, and Matt wasn't allowed to eat leftovers because small amounts of bacteria could start growing in the leftovers right away. For most of us, our bodies would never know, but for Matt, the smallest hint of bacteria could be life-threatening.

This left me as Head Chef and Chief Kitchen Staff, with no recipes in my repertoire, no help in the kitchen, very few kitchen utensils, and about one hour a week to do all the grocery shopping. (Because Matt was so sick, I had to be his full-time caregiver and wasn't allowed to leave him alone. If I needed to do grocery shopping, I had to find a close friend or family member who was germ-free, who could come to our apartment sit with Matt for an hour while I ran to the grocery store -- or, on more desperate occasions, I had to pay a certified nurse $100/hr to come sit with him).

My Hopeless Kitchen Utensils

In one of my recent posts, I wrote about the first time I had to prepare a meal when we were released from the hospital into our "transplant housing":

"When we were eventually released from the hospital into outpatient housing, I had to become my husband’s personal chef, as he wasn’t allowed to eat any meals that had been prepared by a stranger — he had no immune system and any germs or bacteria transmitted through food could kill him (no pressure!). I had ZERO cooking skills (Matt had always been the cook in our relationship). I didn’t know what to make, where to begin, or how to make it. The first day home from the hospital (“home” being our outpatient housing since our real home was 7,000 miles away in New Zealand), I tried to make chicken and dumplings — a recipe that my mom had given me. It was pretty basic, and she was confident I could do it without a hitch.

Wrong! I burned the entire thing.

I’m not even sure how I managed this, to be honest. How does one burn dumplings? It’s like I had a special power in the kitchen: Everything I touched, turned to coal.

So there I was — feeling helpless and hopeless and trying to stay positive in a world filled with bad news and burned food. I literally had my husband’s life in my hands every day as I struggled to learn new skills, fight new legal battles, and earn a condensed medical degree in Acute Myeloid Leukemia while operating on very little sleep and very high stress. (So, basically, I was just another medical student. Ha.) And somehow I had to maintain a semblance of sanity in the process."

It was a dark time and, by any standards, not the best time to learn a new skill from scratch -- particularly cooking.

But there we were, and there was no choice. I had to learn to cook. I spent the first couple years hating it and burning meal after meal. I would cry as Matt would try to choke it down. (Side note: When you're going through chemo, your taste buds become very sensitive. Everything tastes different, nothing tastes great, and it's a challenge to keep things down. So if I burned something, the burnt flavor was incredibly strong for Matt, who already had no appetite and was 30+ lbs under his normal weight, so this just added to my anxiety, sadness, and feeling of hopelessness that I wasn't able to cook him a nice meal.)

However, like everything else throughout this journey, I knew this was a challenge that I would have to overcome. I knew there were people in the world who LOVED cooking and who were really good at it, and I was determined to become one of them. Everything is a choice, I told myself. You can choose to like something, or you can choose to hate it, but the former will bring you endlessly more happiness. I was determined to choose happiness, regardless of life's circumstances, so I set out to love cooking.

One of the First Meals I Prepared at Our Transplant Housing

This journey to love was not easy, nor was it quick. It took many years, and if I'm being honest, my relationship with cooking didn't fully blossom until about a year and a half ago when we bought a house with a HUGE, beautiful kitchen, and I set out to fully stock it with all the necessary (and some not-so-necessary) utensils and appliances that make my relationship with cooking so much richer.

Four and a half years later, I can finally say I've reached my goal: I've taught myself to actually, genuinely, wholeheartedly LOVE cooking. It's become a form of therapy, a type of meditation, an escape from a crazy work week, a means to create something beautiful (and delicious), and a way to express my love. (One of Matt's love languages is "Acts of Service", and cooking him a nice meal is a way of saying, "I love you." In our wedding vows, he joked about one of my love languages being "Receiving Gifts", which was funny, but also kinda true. Not that the gift has to be big -- he made me a set of wooden charcuterie boards one time, and it's one of my most cherished gifts. Of course, he also made me a beautiful, built-in dresser one time, which was pretty awesome too -- though slightly more complicated.)

So as I come full circle in my journey to the kitchen, I'll share with you some of my favorite recipes, my health theories about food, things I've learned from the many, many books I've read on this topic (including this fave), and how we used food (and continue to use food) to promote a healthy lifestyle and ward off disease.

So bon appetit!

4 Months Pregnant in My New Kitchen! (Dec 2019)

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