We are excited to announce the winner of the March 2023 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is Jennafer Barber with the submission “Will to Cook” and runner-up is Priscilla Shartle with the submission “Food for Thought.”
Will to Cook
The weight of depression is not conducive to cooking. Eating is essential to survival, I know that. I enjoy food and have shared many wonderful meals with friends and family. However, depression has its own agenda which consists of lying under the covers in the dark, staring numbly at the wall. A few fits of tears and a lot of rumination. Forcing myself to find the will to rise from the comfort of my cohort of pillows and blankets to exert effort in cooking a meal is not an easy task. I will be the first to admit that depression has won many battles over eating, but I’m trying to be different. Better. Kinder to myself.
You would think that having lived with bipolar depression for the past 12 years, I would be well versed in shedding the weight. Although that would be ideal, depressive episodes are not that simple. It starts with a small trigger to get the blues rolling, and this time, it’s another failed relationship. A woman can only take so many heartbreaks after all. Surrounded by people who have a loved one, it’s hard not to cast the blame inwards. A breakup may sound trivial to some, but to those who struggle with mental illness, it can be destructive. I try to brush it off and carry on, but my heart weeps as my brain betrays me by recounting the sweetness of him.
Appetite goes first; grief is filling. Communicating with my friends becomes too much work. My brain convinces me that no one understands the pain that is seeping into my bones. Arriving to work late and blankly staring at my computer as the day slips through my fingers willingly is a daily occurrence. Showering seems like scaling a skyscraper. Impossible. How do I take care of myself when I’m trapped in the abyss? How do I make myself alive again?
My therapist told me to start being my own best friend which sounds too cliché. She said to start doing the things I love again. I love writing and creating worlds with my fingertips. I love baking and sharing my sweet treats with others. Long walks on a breezy day. Losing myself in a riveting book. She said it will take time; I have to start small. Cooking a meal will be my start.
Turns out, starting is hard. I have to muster all my courage and use it to fill the holes in my heart. To motivate me to shrug off the covers and guide my feet to the kitchen, I think of my favorite meal. The phantom smells of basil and oregano begin to fill my nose. The taste of warm marinara and parmesan cheese tempts my tastebuds. My mouth waters at the thought of meatballs and angel hair. I love all pasta, but a classic meal of spaghetti and meatballs not only tastes good, but is simple to make. The perfect meal.
To aid in sticking to making the meal, I turn on mindless children’s animation. The sounds help me to not feel so alone. The cartoon has bright colors and fun music. A little chip in the dark.
Now for the hard part. I stand at the stove debating whether or not this is worth it. There’s an ache in my chest and tears start to blur my vision. But spaghetti is good, I tell myself. I repeat it and wipe the tears. Before I lose my nerve, I grab my biggest pot, fill it with water, and turn the stove on. I pour the salt in and watch the grains swirl around before settling at the bottom. Next, I open my freezer and pull out the bag of frozen meatballs. I know handmade meatballs taste better; my mom used to make them. She would add cubes of cheese in the middle and let me form them into little balls. But my mom isn’t here and this is easier. The meatballs clink when they hit the pan. I rummage through the little drawer next to the stove before pulling out the can opener. It’s solid in my hand. I focus on the smoothness of the handles and cranking the blades. The thick red sauce is mesmerizing as it pours out of the can and floods the meat. My stomach rumbles as I place the lid over the pan and start the timer.
There’s not much to do while waiting for water to boil. I think there’s a saying about that, “a watched pot never boils.” Maybe there’s more to that saying than I realized. Maybe I can’t continue to lay in bed and dream about being happier when I need to make an effort to change. But…effort takes effort, and right now, making spaghetti is draining my remaining dregs for the day. Baby steps.
My mind drifts in the waiting. I want to think of him, to dream of us together again. My hands begin to tremble, the burning in my nose sparking tears in my eyes. The water is boiling now. Steam escapes in steady streams from the sides of the lid. Large bubbles rapidly crash to the surface. Tears wet my cheeks in rivulets. I stare at the boiling water for a moment, trying to force myself into motion. I feel stuck. Frozen. Physically and metaphorically. The tiny voice in the furthest part of my brain yells in encouragement. It tells me to keep going. The tears continue, but so do I.
After tearing it open, I upend the pasta box and let the thin noodles find their way into the hot water. Half go limp while the other half is being clumsily maneuvered under the water. The meatballs are boiling at this moment, too. Marinara sauce splatters the inside of the lid. Slowly, I lift the lid and give the meatballs a good stir. The apartment smells of rich pasta sauce and spices. The warmth from the stove hugs me tight. I neglect to stir the noodles enough, so when I dump them into my white strainer, clumps accompany the thin strands. Good thing I like the clumps. I give the strainer a few shakes before letting the noodles plop back into the pot. Butter tends to make things better, so I cut off a couple tablespoons and stir it into the steaming pile. The timer beeps to indicate the meatballs are finished cooking. I switch off the burners and start to dish out the food.
My plate is loaded with buttery angel hair drowned in red sauce, adorned with a healthy serving of meatballs, and topped with parmesan cheese. When I take my first bite, I feel better. The tears have dried, my heart still aches, the pain is still a resident in my soul, but the tears have dried.
Jennafer Barber. Writing and reading have always been great loves of hers. Escaping to a new world or creating a world for others to escape to are exciting experiences. Her other loves include pasta, baking, and her two adorable cats. Her dream is to publish a book that others can enjoy and love.
Food for Thought
The first time I attempted to cook something I burned the side of my face. I was five or six years old. I wanted to surprise Mama and Daddy by making coffee for them. It was early morning and they were asleep. I had watched Mama make it alot. I just knew I could do it too.
Our kitchen was a tiny room with a refrigerator on one wall, a deep porcelain sink under two high windows flanked by counter-tops and cabinets underneath. On the third wall was the back door that led to the driveway along the side of the house. The fourth wall had a free-standing four burner gas stove and oven. The whole room was about the size of a walk-in closet by today’s standards.
After sneaking out of bed, I dragged a chair from the dining room which was part of the kitchen but separated by a wall and door into the living room. The chair was a heavy shiny metal with the back and seat padded with yellow Naugahyde vinyl. I needed the chair to stand on to make the coffee.
It took a while, but I found the Community coffee, coffee pot, cake tin, sauce pan and a china demi-tasse coffee cup, all necessary to make one pot of Louisiana drip coffee. I filled the sauce pan with water from the sink and carried it to the stove. With a pilot light I was able to light the right gas burner. I turned the flames high to boil the water. Next I filled the round cake pan halfway with water and put it on left burner with a low flame. I put the coffee pot in the pie pan. I used a spoon to scoop coffee grounds from the coffee bag. I poured them into the middle section. The middle held the grounds while the top section held the boiling water. I carefully placed it in the pot. The tiny little holes at the bottom of this section let the boiling water drain over the coffee into the bottom of the pot.
Things were going along beautifully. I dipped the tiny cup into the boiling water and poured it into the top section of the coffee pot. I repeated this several times. What I had not counted on was that when placing the coffee grounds into the pot, some had spilt onto the floor and the chair I was standing on. Suddenly I slipped off the chair while holding a cup of boiling water which then splashed onto the left side of my face.
There went my surprise! I ran screaming and crying into my parent’s bedroom. I went to Daddy as he was the closest to the door and woke him up. He was confused with my screaming and inability to explain and to comfort me he kept rubbing my sore face. The next thing I remember was at the pediatrician’s office with Daddy. Mama had to stay home with my little brother and sister.
Dr. Miller smeared a black gooey cream all over the side of my face that was burned and then he covered it with a bandage. I spent a week in bed trying to not touch it, but I remember that it itched terribly. Mama said it would make it worse if I didn’t stop scratching. We went back to the doctor for him to remove the bandage. I remember the look on his face when he and Mama saw that I was not scarred. It never occurred to me that I might be scarred.
Today when I remember that time, I think of several lessons that resulted in my attempt to make coffee. One was that things could have been a lot worse; Mama and Daddy never got mad at me or punished me; and no matter how much you prepare for something, things can go wrong, but by learning from our mistakes things can turn out to be exactly as we expected.
Although my parents didn’t get mad at me or punish me, I had been given a serious lesson on playing with fire, and climbing up on things without someone around to help. Cooking with the stove and oven were not an option for the next five or so years. I could make a “mean” peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of chocolate milk for myself or a plate of Ritz Crackers with peanut butter, but that was about it. By the time I got to high school I could scramble an egg or fry a hamburger patty. I basically avoided any opportunity to cook. And I didn’t take the time to watch may parents, both of whom were great cooks. I will never know if my attempt at making coffee and the results that followed had anything to do with my lack of interest in cooking, but I suspect it did.
A funny thing happened on the day my husband and I unpacked our worldly goods in our apartment in Long Beach, California. Married three days, we realized suddenly neither of us knew how to cook. The first thing I did was write a letter to my parents. (Long distance phone calls were too expensive in 1970!) My father sent me his recipe to cook a roast in the oven and Mama gave me her directions for making rice. I also wrote my husband’s mother and she mailed me her recipe for pepper steaks. My first attempt for this recipe brought tears to both our eyes. Not because it was terrible but because when my husband, who was in the Navy, walked in the house after being on the ship all day, the smell reminded him of home and that it was delicious brought me to tears. But the best wedding gifts I brought with me to California were my Louisiana cookbooks, “River Roads Recipes” and “Talk About Good!” Both were a staple then and now.
Today, I have well over a hundred cookbooks with at least half that have turned down pages, stars or happy faces and other notes to show my children where to find them after I’m gone. I know this is important. Because when we have potluck dinners, my four children often ask me to make, one grandmother’s coleslaw, or their grandfather’s cheese grits or my sister’s crawfish pie, or the other grandmother’s Thanksgiving cornbread dressing. These are the foods they grew up with, and it warms my heart to know this.
One luxury I never expected at this time in my life is that I would have the time, energy and love for planning meals for me and my husband. I make menus for the week which he shops for. I cook three meals a day and he cleans. We eat together especially enjoying those foods from long ago that brings us back to our childhood and life in Louisiana.
And that brings me back to my first attempt of cooking. Quite possibly that incident in my life was meant to be; to let me travel through time to be where I am today, a lover of food, my family and a woman of faith like that child, long ago, that never doubted she would be unscarred.
Which reminds me, the chicken and sausage jambalaya is ready to come out the oven! Bon Appetite!
Priscilla Shartle has been writing since a young child using her grandmother’s Royal typewriter. She began writing seriously after joining a writers group in Chattanooga that encouraged her to stay with the course. Before co-publishing “The History of Signal Mountain” from Arcadia Publishing, she was the editor of the Signal Mountain Mirror newspaper for five years. She published in an assortment of magazines in Hamilton and Catoosa County where she lives now with her husband. She served as President of the Chattanooga Writers Guild in the past. Today, she volunteers at local schools, enjoys her P.E.O. chapter, and participating in church activities.
The Monthly Contests rotate through a pattern of Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction throughout the year, with a new theme each month. Go to the 2023 Monthly Contest Series Info page to view the genre and theme for each month.
This contest is free to enter for members of the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild. To become a member, click HERE