Kneading Love and Loss in the Kitchen

Kneading Love and Loss in the Kitchen

Copyright © 2017 by Lily Diamond from KALE & CARAMEL: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Photos copyright © 2017, Lily Diamond

Lily Diamond learned the sensorial magic of culinary creativity from her mother, whose life was cut tragically short. In her new book Kale and Caramel (Atria 2017), Diamond shares how those early years spent in the kitchen and the garden with her mother have evolved into a passion for the gifts of herbs and flowers, and how her connection to these elements helped to heal her grieving heart. I caught up with Diamond recently to talk with her about the power of cooking to inspire, heal, and connect.

The love and loss of your mother are threads that weave through your book. How did she affect your relationship to the kitchen?

From the time I was a child, I was climbing up on the kitchen counter to help my mom—an aromatherapist and herbologist—cook and concoct. When I wasn’t learning to make tamari-and-nutritional-yeasted tofu, I was running out to our front yard to pick basil for salad, or comfrey leaves to infuse into oil for healing salve. She awakened in me a love of plants, and taught me to see cooking as creative outlet and aesthetic endeavor (she used to make elaborate mandala salads!) as much as a source of nourishment.

I get the feeling the five senses are keys that unlock a door to another realm for you. Do you feel like your time in the kitchen is a way to access a spiritual connection?

Absolutely. There’s a meditative aspect to the urgency and immediacy of cooking (chopping! measuring! boiling! heat! acid!) that forces me to be completely present. In that presence, I can immerse myself in the sensorial experience of the ingredients—the scent of mint, the texture of a blackberry, the stunning color of a radish. And in that full sensorial presence, I find a real freedom.

You describe writing as being a cathartic experience after your mother's passing; a way to make some sense of a confusing, grieving time. What role did being in the kitchen play in processing her illness and subsequent loss of life.

Because I spent so much time in the kitchen with my mom, the space initially felt like a field of emotional landmines. Everything—a garlic press, a cored apple, a cup of tea—touched on a deep well of sadness. I didn’t want to be there if it wasn’t with her. After some years, I found myself enjoying the idea of cooking again, and cooking for others, in particular. Sharing meals with loved ones erased some of the trauma of loss, and it was through these dinners that the idea of starting Kale & Caramel was born. Once I realized I didn’t have to be isolated in the kitchen, I was able to find joy in it again.

The various ingredients you include in the book offer a glimpse of a transcendence. Are there specific ingredients that stand out for you as entry points to another realm?

Each of the book’s chapters is dedicated to a distinct aromatic herb or flower, and each of these plants is a touchstone for a unique facet of healing or restoration, physically and psycho-spiritually. Rose awakens compassion and eases heartache, lavender soothes anxiety, mint tames nausea and headaches, jasmine is an aphrodisiac. These aromatic properties are imminently accessible to us, we just have to take the time to notice them.

While I would say yes, these ingredients are an entry point to another realm, I’d caution against that kind of dualism—it’s a realm that’s right here, right at your fingertips.

As a fellow Maui woman, I appreciate what growing up surrounded by lush nature is like. How has this translated into your culinary creativity?

Because of the abundance of produce that grew outside my front door, I learned early on to cook from what we had on hand. When the broccoli was finally grown, we’d eat that for weeks. During mango season, the skin around our mouths would be temporarily stained orange. We ate local and seasonal because we ate from the land, not because it was trendy. Now, wherever I am, I seek out farmers markets and community gardens and let the food of the place speak to what I make in the kitchen. The vibrance of foods in their peak season is fuel for creation.

Before your mother's illness, you write of her strict adherence to a 'healthy' diet. What does a healthy way of eating mean to you now?

For me, healthy means sourcing, preparing, and eating food with joy and awareness rather than fear (fear of calories or ingredients or sources). It means taking the time to experience the sensorial qualities of the food, and to educate myself about what I'm eating, how it affects my body, and where it comes from. It means slowing down to enjoy every mouthful and noticing how I feel before, during, and after I eat different foods. And then, of course, not obsessing over any of it—ha! Because I always want the joy to come first.

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