Two years ago, I was slogging away on my PhD dissertation, meant to be one of the final hurdles en route to an academic career I'd lately come to accept I didn't want. This wasn't a welcome admission. I'd lost four years' time, yes; accrued now-pointless student debt. But far more troubling was the sense that the most basic facts of my existence had abruptly escaped my control. While I'd sustained even the feeblest idea of entering academia, I'd at least felt some purpose. Now I'd complete my degree (might as well), bid farewell to the university, and – what?
It was within this mental muddle that an unexpected fixation took hold. At the computer, playing approach-avoidance with my dissertation each day, I increasingly found myself sneaking over to cooking blogs, recipe sites. Over lunches, I watched Lidia Bastianich conjure scratch-made pastas on PBS. Soon, spare moments were lived in the kitchen. I set myself to achieving glossy-golden baguettes; I set my alarm, once, for 4 a.m. on a Sunday so I could rise to fold laminated Danish dough.
My culinary noodling didn't exactly reveal an innate genius. (To date, my baguettes emerge from the oven stubbornly tough and bland.) But no matter. For those spells when food engaged me, the feeling that I was on a countdown to aimlessness dropped away. Before long, the thought came that maybe I'd found not a preoccupation, but an occupation. I had no special gift for cookery, but I had several years' training as a writer.
When I learned that my city was hosting a conference for food writers, I saw my chance. I registered. By that first morning of the conference, I'd fairly transferred all my eggs to a new basket.
The conference days were filled with talks on practical matters, such as writing cookbooks and pitching culinary magazines, and dreamier ones, like working a sorghum mill or transcribing an oral history of Appalachian desserts. During breaks, I chatted with other attendees, most working food writers. Some gave me bits of advice (how to follow up queries, whether to start a blog), which I scribbled down earnestly. I felt my optimism validated; I had only to master a few conventions and I'd have myself a new vocation.
I was sure my foothold in the world was returning when, on the conference's last day, we were delivered to an idyll of a dairy for a field trip. The sun shone benevolently on the placid Jersey cows grazing their pasture as we spilled off the bus; up ahead, beside an old farmhouse, the staff had prepared a tasting party of the dairy's products. Come eat, they beckoned.
As I made my way through the offerings – fresh-griddled hoecakes and biscuits soaked in butter, cups of chocolate milk and buttermilk – something possessed me. The imperative to jostle through each line, to shove one of everything down my gullet, eclipsed my awareness of the food itself – the look and smell and texture. The taste.
My final quarry was salted caramel ice cream. Impatiently I watched a dairy employee curl it into taut scoops from my place at the back of the line. And then, with just a handful of people ahead of me, the sky blackened and loosed on us a ferocious downpour.
Many field trippers ran for the bus. My fellow salted caramel pursuers and I simply packed tighter under the frail tent beneath which the ice cream station was set up. Now the wind began sloshing cold rain from the tent's roof down the scooper's back. She recoiled but went on scooping; perhaps she recognized in us the mad single-mindedness of feeding sharks. I saw her shiver, and my conscience twinged. I ignored it and waited for my ice cream.
It wasn't until I was back on the bus that my horror kicked in. My paper-cupped prize melted on my knee; taking a small, sheepish spoonful I tasted only the abandonment of restraint. The nature of this new career, it was clear, needed more reflection. For if food could offer me a comforting exercise in the most exacting control, it could at once be an agent for its total loss.
Since finishing my dissertation, I've published bits of food writing here and there. The dairy runs a stand at my local farmers' market, and I've spotted the scooper there a few times. Always I want to apologize to her, but I can't bring myself to speak of the incident. I lower my eyes; I do not stop to try the salted caramel ice cream, though I'm sure it is delicious.