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How Cooking Helped Me Find Joy After Coming Out

food

I was celebrating my first birthday as a woman. In my hands was a heavy, rectangular object gift-wrapped in festive red paper and decorated with a big bow. It was from my partner, whose loving blue eyes watched me from across the room. As I sat in a comfy armchair in an Airbnb tucked into the Northern California wilderness, I could see the cool, misty morning air, the overcast sky showing hints of the emerging fall weather.

I ripped open the paper, and inside was Samin Nosrat’s bestselling cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. I gave a little squeal of delight. This was the first cookbook anyone had given me in years, and it felt so appropriate to what was happening in my life.

I’d been transitioning into a woman for around seven months, and—among many, many other things—my new gender was making a big impact on how I cooked. It wasn’t that I suddenly went from microwaving takeout to making my own dinners from scratch. Cooking was something that I’d enjoyed for my whole life, but my relationship to it was changing in some pretty dramatic ways.

Pre-transition, I’d tended to cook the same handful of dishes, very rarely trying to get new inspiration. This was typical of my personality back then: I knew what I liked and tended to go very deep, but didn’t explore much laterally. What new recipes I did add to my repertoire largely came from a handful of cooking classes I’d taken with my partner—we’d done very memorable ones in Puebla, Mexico (where I learned to make mole in the city where it was invented) and in Thailand, which was when pad thai and green curry became staple dishes for me.

But now things were very different. I was feeling empowered to explore cuisines and techniques that I’d never touched before. And what I was eating was changing. The hormones that had been coursing through my body for months had a culinary agenda of their own, and the flavors and textures that most delighted my palate were shifting. I don’t know if I’d say that my eating was becoming “more feminine”—what does that even mean?—but it did very much feel like it was becoming more and more me.

As I paged through Salt Fat Acid Heat, I was met with a memory of the last cooking class my partner and I had taken. It had happened about eight months prior to my birthday, at a moment when I was just beginning to realize my need to be a woman. For Christmas, my partner had bought us a ramen-making class, this being a dish that we’d love to eat together but had never imagined making for ourselves.

Now that I was transitioning, things were very different. I was feeling empowered to explore cuisines and techniques that I’d never touched before.

As we were waiting for the class to begin, I sat around a table with about a dozen other people, nervously sipping a glass of water. In that moment I was experiencing some of the strongest gender dysphoria of my life. The day of that class was one of the first times that I really, really knew that I needed everyone around me to know I was woman. I was finally admitting needs that I’d repressed for my entire life—needs I’d gotten so good at hiding from myself that I no longer even knew they were there. Recognizing my needs in this way was very liberating, but also extremely painful, because I was letting go of my primary defense against gender dysphoria.

As I made small talk with my classmates, I wanted to be seen a female so badly, but I knew there was absolutely no way. I remember very well standing in a dim, single-user bathroom during a break from the class, feeling all alone as I looked at myself in the mirror and felt the worst pains of futility and failure.

Hours later, as my partner and I sat together sipping beers in a nearby bar, I worked up the courage to tell her that I might be happier if I had less testosterone in my system. This was the first time I’d told anybody anything about changing my body’s chemistry, and it was also one of the first times I really admitted this desire to myself. I felt very ashamed, as though I needed to have some extraordinarily good justification for making what felt like a bizarre and unreasonable request. I didn’t even think to say a word about estrogen, nor about wanting to be female—those felt like way too much to ask. Just asking for a little less testosterone felt like all the space I could possibly make for myself.

All of that seemed so, so distant from how I felt on my first female birthday, having just filed for a court order to legally change my name and gender, very happily living with the right hormones in my body, and generally being seen by the world at large as a woman. So much had occurred in the eight months since that class, and my birthday felt like a celebration of these miraculous changes.

And now I had a new cookbook to explore.

Salt Fat Acid Heat was the first cookbook I ever read cover to cover—and it still is the only cookbook I’ve done that with. The recipes in there are wonderful, infused with surprising flavors and ingredient combinations that give it an unmistakable air of the Northern California cuisine pioneered by Alice Waters. But what I’ve found even more powerful than the recipes is the philosophy behind them. The book is built around the titular four aspects of cooking, with Nosrat arguing that mastering the correct use of them in any given dish is the secret to great cooking. She goes into great depth explaining the many ways they may manifest, how you can control them to wring as much flavor as possible out of your ingredients. She also includes some fold-out taste maps that show how you create the distinctive flavors unique to the world’s cuisines.

This knowledge was the perfect thing to make me into a more able cook. As I began applying the lessons I’d learned from Nosrat, I could feel myself getting more and more confident figuring out new recipes, modifying them, and developing recipes of my own. Learning to cook with Nosrat was what made finally made me feel like I was an active agent in the kitchen. It was indicative of how my transition was empowering me to take charge of my life in so many ways.

After absorbing the knowledge in Salt Fat Acid Heat, I felt ready transform myself into an amazing cook. I just needed to figure out where I could get new recipes.

The answer, obviously, was more cookbooks, but which one to try first? I barely knew anything about the world of cookbooks, so whenever I tried to shop for one in a bookstore I felt lost amid all the choices. I decided to pause cookbook shopping for the moment and start with my own bookshelves at home. Digging through the cookbooks that my partner had amassed over the years, I found that I’d barely paged through most of them. Their bounty of recipes would be my starting point.

Salt Fat Acid Heat was the first cookbook I ever read cover to cover—and it still is the only cookbook I’ve done that with.

One early resource was How to Cook Everything, an encyclopedic reference by Mark Bittman. I also enjoyed Linda Carucci’s Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks, where the recipes come with specialized tips and explanations that greatly expanded my technical skills. As I began to expand, I turned to Diana Kennedy’s From My Mexican Kitchen, which is full of tons of authentic recipes form one of the world’s most celebrated chefs. Later on, I got into J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab, which takes a very scientific approach to empowering at-home chefs by using physics and chemistry to explain why we cook the way we do. (The recipes in there are also great and cover just about anything.) And Melissa Clark’s Dinner provided a lot of fresh inspiration and a surprisingly wide range of cuisines.

Any kind of reading is always better with community, and as I began to have more and more of a viewpoint about cookbooks, I headed to Instagram. The photos I shared of my culinary creations immediately brought out the foodies in my network. These friends were an immense source of inspiration and recipes, as well as a way of validating my skills and helping me gauge how much I was growing. Food became a new way to bond with people I’d never previously had much to say to.

I was making progress, but I wanted more. I discovered, via a friend, a social network called Food 52; this website has tons of recipes, recommendations, articles, and hot takes (why bouillon is better than stock!)—basically a culinary rabbit hole. Of great interest to me was “The Piglet,” an NCAA-inspired tournament of cookbooks, as well as the cookbook-based community that they operate on Facebook. More veteran cooks might enjoy the subscription-based website Eat Your Books, which is a great way to index, organize, and share your favorite recipes—when you want to know every recipe you adore that involves, say, barley, this website can help you find the answer in seconds.

Full Belly Farm (my CSA, short for community supported agriculture) proved invaluable as I continued branching out. With each weekly box of produce, Full Belly sends its subscribers a newsletter that includes a recipe, which helped inspire me to cook with veggies that I rarely bought in the store. Another thing I found to love about being a Full Belly subscriber is that it acts as a great guide to the vegetables that are currently in season in my area—each weekly box of produce helps me figure out what to shop for in order to get the freshest, most environmentally friendly produce.

As I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my decision to transition in February 2019, cooking began to become something even more meaningful than ever. It was more than just a place where I was defining my femininity on my terms—it was one of the areas where I started seriously finding my happiness. It was helping me have things I never thought I deserved.

Like most people whose lives have been smothered by gender dysphoria, my emotions pre-transition were deadened and distant. This is one of the primary ways that trans people cope with the omnipresent sense of being estranged from our own body, and it’s also a way of tolerating a society that tells us that we can never be who we are. One of the consequences of this was that I didn’t believe happiness was a real thing. I didn’t think I deserved to have it, and I’d learned to disdain the pursuit of it. I would do things like sneer dismissively whenever I heard people talking about their goal of living a happy life. Finding joy was an alien idea to me.

Pre-transition, cooking was one of the only places I could find anything even remotely resembling happiness. Once a week I’d make a really sumptuous meal—spaghetti and meatballs was my favorite—as a way to cheer myself up. These dinners provided a dash of self-care at a time when I didn’t believe that I deserved or needed it. Looking back, I can see now that that was one of my main tools for pushing battling against feelings that had gotten so intractable that I’d long since forgotten it was possible to feel differently.

But this all was changing as I was becoming a woman. Sharing recipes and food became a powerful way to manifest happiness for myself and those closest to me. For my 6-months hormone-replacement-therapy anniversary, I threw myself a big party, spending several days cooking up a feast to share with two dozen of my friends. I also cooked the Thanksgiving meal for the first time, and as the New Year began, my partner and I decided to have a goal of inviting more friends over to our home to share a home-cooked dinner.

Cooking was transforming into a new world that I could explore for the rest of my life, and a practice I could take joy in on a daily basis. I no longer just cooked the same dishes in the same ways for the same reasons; I was eager to hone my skills and refine my flavors, and I was excited to figure out cuisines and ingredients and techniques that I never would have bothered with before. I was finally seeing that I had a right to find joy in the food I ate, and I loved sharing what I had made with the people I cared about.

As I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my decision to transition, cooking began to become something even more meaningful than ever. It was more than just a place where I was defining my femininity on my terms…

One reason that everyone should be empowered to live their gender is that gender dysphoria robs us of what most people take for granted. Because of its all-consuming nature, it’s easy for those of us who suffer from it to lose sight of the fact that it’s not normal to feel as we do. When you have been told for your whole life that what you know to be true is an impossibility, that one of your most basic needs is perverted and disgraceful, it’s so easy to just accept that life is a place of desperation and deprivation.

So it was that the joy that can be had from cooking never existed for me until I was able to escape my dysphoria. As I began to trust that I could live a life of hope and happiness, I finally understood why people are so passionate about cooking, and why food can so powerfully bring us together.

Although the immensely transphobic nature of our society makes hopelessness epidemic among trans people, such emotions are not unique to us. So many people of all kinds find it hard to believe in happiness, or have blocked off their emotions in an attempt to cope with a pain so much bigger than them. One of the reasons I share my story is so that anyone who knows what this is like also knows that they’re not alone, and that there are ways out, even if progress may seem slow or impossible.

Cooking helped me to escape. It was a way of discovering my happiness, and with it I am building a bridge to the life I want to live. It’s become a foundation of this new person who is finally emerging into the world, a way for me to effortlessly locate my happiness whenever I need to, and to share it with others.

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