I had wanted to teach writing and storytelling classes at the shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ kids under 23. I had wanted to do it, but the volunteer director took a look at my resume, at my bookstore office job, at my Salvation Army clothes, and he asked me if I would like to cook for the residents once a week instead. The perfectly dressed girl in my orientation who worked for the ACLU was asked if she would like to be a life mentor for the residents.
Okay, I thought. I’m happy to go where they need me.
A few weeks later, I found myself standing at the bus stop, waiting to cross Queens to the shelter. The documentary The Dog had just been released, and as I stood in front of the poster for it, I took a selfie of me in John Wojtowicz’s silhouette and texted it to my wife. The Dog was the true story behind the film Dog Day Afternoon, in which a man robs a bank to pay for his suicidally depressed trans lover’s operation. My wife and I, both transgender ourselves, laughed at the picture. She asked me if I was planning to rob a bank. She told me she’d have dinner ready for me when I got home. The bus arrived.
I got to the church basement kitchen. There were no instructions. There were no sharp knives. There was a key to a freezer full of meat and vegetables, a bag of potatoes, and a few boxes of Rice-A-Roni.
I was very, very poor when I lived in Queens. $1200 income a month poor. My rent excluding bills was $700. I made it work. I guess I wasn’t the greatest role model, though.
My wife and I loved each other, I thought, and we were having fun, being artists, and transitioning genders together. I became stagnant on activism after I graduated college, and I wanted to give something back even though I didn’t have anything really to give. Except time, I had time. I would give that.
Cooking for 30 kids was a challenge. First of all, the logistics of it. There was a small oven, a stovetop, and a toaster oven. Just barely enough space to time 30 meals simultaneously, and you couldn’t have half of the kids eat and half of the kids wait. Then, there was the fact that they were kids, and kids have notoriously shitty palates. I tried to think of what I had eaten as a kid. Eventually, I began making cheese sauces to pour over the boiled broccoli they left uneaten on their plates.
What’s that? one of the kids asked the first time she saw the orange mixture bubbling in the saucepan.
Cheese sauce. For your vegetables.
No one’s ever done that before, she said.
No one….ever made you cheese sauce so you’d eat your vegetables?
No, she said.
It would be a phrase I would hear repeated often—when I made them shepherd’s pies on cold winter nights, when I made them real mashed potatoes instead of boxed ones. When I offered to make pie crust for two large pot pies, the counselor in charge of the shelter looked at me with something like confusion. Isn’t that difficult? he asked.
The fire alarm in the basement was so hair triggered that steam from a boiling pot of water would set it off. I spent half of my time waving pot holders at it, trying to make it stop beeping incessantly. Half of the time I wondered if everything was horrible, burning.
The residents in the shelter didn’t seem to mind. They chatted about their dreams, the drama going on at any given moment in the residence, their ideal future houses—would it be a rich apartment in Manhattan, or a shady place out in the boroughs where no one would mind that all their friends were addicts and sex workers? Occasionally they’d disclose details of being thrown out of their homes, which mostly revolved around parents who couldn’t deal with their children being queer.
I hadn’t spoken to my own family in years at that point. My wife, the community of queer people I moved in, the friends I had collected over the years were my only family. They were where all my own dreams resided. I didn’t have anything to say to make any of it better.
One day, I remembered what my grandmother had fed me for practically half of the meals I ate as a child. Homemade, hand-cut french fries. They were my favorite. They were the favorite of all her grandchildren. She’d passed away long ago. I could still remember dipping oil-hot fries into ketchup to cool them down enough to take a bite, because I couldn’t wait.
There happened to be a bag of potatoes and some hamburger patties at the shelter. I decided to give burgers and hand-cut fries a try.
The first batch of potatoes I cut into fries with a butter knife came out a soggy, oily mess. Not fries. Then I remembered my grandmother telling me that the first batch always came out the worst, that you needed to let the oil get very, very hot. I tried again, and the fries began to brown and crisp. I fried up pan after pan.
The residents started taking plates. A girl with her arm in a cast came up to me and said, Can I have some more French fries? I cut and fried potatoes until the entire bag was gone.
Riding the bus home, with the smell of oil clinging to me and my grandmother’s love wrapped around me as it hadn’t been since she died 15 years before, I cried.
My wife ran off to San Francisco with another trans girl who she said truly understood her. It didn’t matter that the girl broke up with her a month later for being “too clingy.” My life had been destroyed.
I took a job as a pastry cook at a resort on a mountaintop. A chef taught me how to make cheesecakes, molten cakes, meringues, rum infused whipped creams, doughnuts, fruit compotes, marshmallows, cookies, scones. I dove into baking as a kind of therapy. It was not like other forms of cooking. It was sweet and frivolous, something you could live without. Baked goods existed for the sole purpose of happiness.
I spent all summer on that mountaintop, writing, baking, hiking down paths green with the sunlight that shone through the leaves of trees. I began to dream of things I might do. I would learn everything I could about pastry cooking. I would open a queer-themed bakery called Coming Out Cupcakes with items named after famous gay people. It would run as a non-profit, teaching trans people who couldn’t find other employment all the skills that had been given to me.
I applied for a non-profit fellowship in Detroit, citing that my ultimate goal was to open this jobs training program. I said my reason for wanting to open it there was the large number of trans folks involved in sex work who’d been murdered in the city in the same park, because they had no other options. Unsurprisingly, they also didn’t look upon me as a great role model, or fit for the program. I didn’t give up on the idea.
One day, about two years into my quest to learn everything I could about pastry cooking, I was working mornings as a pastry cook and bread baker and nights as a server. A table was unhappy with their meal, unhappy with their drinks, defiant of any attempts to please them. As a last ditch attempt to save their experience, I bought them dessert—a disc of lemon chiboust resting in a pool of blackberry compote. I had made it myself and promised them it was light, airy, mostly meringue, but brightened by the fruits and their interplay. They ate each bite with smiles on their faces.
That was just for the purpose of goodness and nothing else.
I was living in my first solo apartment in rural Ohio. It was way too big for me and my cat; I constantly thought of ways I could move someone else in. Perhaps a refugee family, for a short time. Maybe a friend’s friend who was escaping domestic abuse.
I’d quit baking professionally. With the affordable care act threatening to disappear, I was worried I couldn’t sustain myself in the restaurant industry any longer. I was thinking of taking a job in car insurance. They kept telling me they could use my empathy in their claims department. It seemed like hell. But I was trying to figure out how I could take care of myself.
I was still broke. Eating wasn’t always easy. I’d started freelancing, and things were a little better. I thought maybe I would do some food writing, but all I had to say about food was stories of vegan holiday meals I’d cooked with my queer family in New York. I felt too unsure about baking to say anything with authority.
A friend wrote an essay about a traditional Indian dish her grandmother had taught her how to make to help heal her of her first broken heart. It was called vadai, and was a deep-fried savory pastry made from dhal and served with chutney and lentil-based gravy. I thought of the foods my grandmother had cooked me. The most special one I could think of was white borscht.
It wasn’t special because it was a huge delicacy or anything like that. It was special because she made it once a year, on Easter. It contained all the elements of a traditional Polish Catholic blessed Easter basket. The egg represented rebirth, the horseradish represented the bitter tears of Christ, and so on. I didn’t believe in any of that stuff, but I did miss my grandmother’s Easter borscht. When I’d been in my early 20s and living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the old Polish women rushing to have their baskets blessed on Easter Saturday had reminded me so much of her. I’d tracked down every restaurant that had served white borscht in the area and sampled all of them. None were quite like my grandmother’s.
The year before, when my cousin’s daughter had died far too young, my twenty-two-year-old niece had called me to say that she was happy she still had me. That I was her only link to that part of her family that she had left. She was mine, too. She told me that she was going to attempt to make our grandmother’s white borscht the night she learned that our cousin had died.
I’ve done a lot of cooking in my life, but I’ve never tried to make my grandmother’s borscht.
I could only remember this—you boiled kielbasa in water and reserved the water. You added vinegar and something else—egg perhaps?—to thicken it. Then, when it was thickened, you warmed it and added sliced hardboiled eggs, sliced kielbasa, ham, pork butt, and horseradish.
But what was that missing step?
My niece sent me the recipe she had been using. It turned out that the missing step was that you thickened sour cream with flour. Then, you poured a bit of the vinegar-kielbasa water into the sour cream/flour to warm it up. Then you whisked the whole thing back into the boiling water.
That’s my favorite part! my niece said to me, via Skype. It’s quite satisfying.
It’s almost just like ‘proofing’ eggs, I said, when you make a custard. Which is my favorite part of pastry cooking.
It’s a delicate process, but easy once you get the hang of it. If it’s done wrong, things curdle. If you do it just right, simultaneously whisking and adding warm to cold, it comes out smooth and resilient to hot temperatures.
Sitting alone in my first solo apartment, I tasted the soup my grandmother had made once a year, which I had not tasted since I was 14. It was just like hers. I couldn’t believe that it had taken me this long to think I could make it myself, any time I wanted, any time I thought of her.
Alex DiFrancesco is a writer of fiction, creative non fiction, and journalism. Their work has appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Brevity, Pacific Standard, and more. They are a winner of SAFTA’s 2017 OutSpoken competition for LGBTQ+ work. Their first novel was published in 2015.