The panko-crusted chicken with thyme and mustard was roasting. The caramelized squash with lemon and hazelnuts seemed to be browning nicely. The mac and cheese was late to the oven, but starting to crisp. And if the skillet cornbread was a little dry, perhaps I could whip up a nice cinnamon butter to save it.
My wife and I had decided to host my block’s Thanksgiving potluck dinner last Sunday. I was handling the cooking; my South Philadelphia neighbors were streaming in the door. My wife worked the room and consulted on the chaos in the kitchen.
None of this would be remarkable except for the fact that, this time last year, my entire culinary repertoire consisted of scorched turkey burgers (sans seasoning), the odd tuna melt (often burned beyond recognition), and microwavable rice. I once nearly maimed a close friend — a celebrated chef — after setting my grill on fire.
Now, I was sweating over sweet cinnamon butter.
Let me explain. The cooking has to do with the gardening, and the gardening has to do with beer.
Or the absence of it.
A year and a half ago, I stopped drinking beer.
For me, this was a big — and long past due — life change. I am 41 and have been drinking beer since I was 14. It had long ago become a daily staple.
In my job, you spend a lot of time swimming in other people’s emotions: grief, loss, regret. That I can handle. But in recent years, I realized I had, for a long time, been drinking to avoid my own.
You lose sight of yourself that way. So, I stopped.
I still allow myself a glass of wine, but never much more than that, and never near enough to forget anything, never mind my emotions. It might not work for everyone, but it’s what helped me.
It was hard at first.
I needed hobbies.
Things to occupy the anxious hours. I had to be present. I had to find something to focus me.
I learned that, at least in my case, being present was something to work at. Ditching beer was only a start.
I started with the pots stacked up in my small concrete backyard. My wife, Jackie, usually tended the garden, but she ceded the trowel to me. I filled the empty spaces in those pots with big, bright hibiscus, velvety celosia, cherry-red begonias. The pots multiplied, all summer long, till the dog had to weave around them, and so did I.
I pestered the staffers at Urban Jungle, the lovely plant shop on Passyunk Avenue whose employees are blessed with infinite patience, with endless queries that began with “So how do you actually, you know, plant a plant?”
And there were tips from my neighbor Betty, who has been growing a marvel of a backyard garden for 40 years.
I spent hours in the yard. At first it was a way to pass the time. But it felt good to be putting my energy into making something beautiful. Constructive. Restorative.
Last month, my mother, who has been ill, was able to visit my home for the first time since I bought it two years ago. She sat in the backyard for a long while, admiring.
As I learned from the good people at Urban Jungle, plants, in fact, wither in the cold. Who knew? So when my last sedum shuffled off the mortal coil last winter, I had to find something else. I resolved to learn how to perfectly cook one appetizer, one entrée, one side dish.
To start, I roasted a chicken. Go big or go home. I nearly poisoned myself and my wife. “It’s supposed to be a little pink,” I assured her before we scrapped it.
But I wanted to get better. Every night, a new meal. I became an evangelist for the New York Times’ cooking app. Betty offered recipes over the wall. She and her husband, Joe, were the most encouraging tasters, offering the most polite criticism. They even forgave me the night my roasted zucchini with garlicky bread crumbs and mozzarella contained enough salt to deice a sidewalk.
And then there were the wonderful nights when I whipped up something I could tell that everyone — my family, my neighbors — really liked.
“This chicken has two mustards,” Joe exclaimed one night from behind his screen door.
He was right. It did.
If the gardening got me present in my own head, the cooking made me present with the people in my life. The ones I care about the most. Neither of my new hobbies was a way to pass the hours, after all. They were a foundation for remaking myself.
Against all odds, the potluck went off with only a few hitches (the cinnamon butter, indeed, had to be deployed to rescue the cornbread). As our guests dug in, I took stock of the things I’m thankful for: family and friends and neighbors who feel like family.
I thought of how if you put people and things, and yes, hobbies, in your life that bring you joy, you never want to lose them. I thought about what grounds me in the present. And how I wanted to keep getting better at them.
And I thought of the cinnamon butter. It really was quite good.