We learn early on in life that freedom is relative. We come out of the womb into loving arms –hopefully- whose mission is to teach us how to be a good person and prosper. Ice cream is to be eaten after dinner and as a special treat; coloring is to be within the lines and please keep the strawberries red and the bananas yellow; homework is to be done before watching TV, no exceptions. We become dutiful servants of the ‘shoulds’. Our rebellious streak shows up occasionally, quickly tamed in the name of correctness and order. As we grow up we come face to face with that which we cannot control: a grand parent dies, a parent loses her job, a war breaks out not so far away. We become victims of the ‘what is’. We let the pain take the driver’s seat. We lose ourselves in busyness in an attempt to forget. We don’t. And soon we graduate to fearing the unexpected: an incurable illness, an accident, a terrorist attack. We become helpless casualties of the ‘what ifs’.
When I was 9 or ten years old I would watch John Wayne’s old westerns with my dad, sitting on a stool pretending to be riding a horse. I even held a piece of string in my hands in order to curb my mare’s enthusiasm. My father was in love with the United States. American soldiers took him out of a German camp in 1945 and delivered him safely home to Belgium. He never forgot. For him it was truly the land of the free. After graduating from college I moved from Brussels to London in an attempt to ‘free myself away’. I rode a plane and went on to New York a few years later. Here I was, newly married and discovering the country my father held in his heart. Surely freedom would now be mine. I could eat ice cream at any time and raise my own children away from the old ways and rules. But I lost myself in doing things and keeping everyone happy. I fell off my horse half way in the big trek to the new frontier. I was bruised and disheartened: how could one ever feel free?
This summer my daughter went to cooking camp. For five blissful days, she chopped, sliced, braised, fried…and ate. I picked her up after camp and got a chance to taste some of the goodies that she and her fellow chefs had prepared: creamy potato salad, crisp onion rings, tender grilled chicken, and sweet and tangy lemon meringue pie. A large bowl at the edge of the oversized counter intrigued me. “That’s coleslaw’, Victoria said, ‘You should try it. It’s amazing.” I’ve never been a big fan of coleslaw. The pale green and orange shreds swimming in mayonnaise remind me of a drizzly afternoon in Brussels: bland and totally unattractive. “Go on”, she insisted, “You won’t regret it,” I grabbed a paper plate and a plastic fork and complied. The vibrant colors of the veggies took me by surprise. The glorious red of chopped peppers complimented the deep purple of the cabbage; the bright orange of the carrots was dancing with the spinach’s deep shade of green. It was a feast for the eyes; even the green cabbage looked alive. When the first bite hit my palate I was thrown straight into culinary heaven. This was a whole new animal: it exploded with flavor and crunchiness; the dressing resonated with zest and freshness. Far, far from mayo land, my taste buds were enjoying an exciting walk in the sun in an exotic garden. If coleslaw could be liberated from the fear of using new spices and from the limitations of its own ingredients, anything was possible.
Life deals us cabbage, or spinach, or onions. That’s what life does. We do not control the ingredients we find in our personal pantry. But I’ve come to understand that I can control how I orchestrate the work in the kitchen. Like John Wayne in the old west, I’m looking for adventure and order. Like my dad I cherish freedom. My way. It doesn’t matter whether I live in Belgium, the US, or Laponia; I don’t care when I eat ice cream or what color the bananas are. I’m freeing myself through, right now, right here. When I prefer to act out of love or out of the dictate of my heart, I let go of the shoulds. When I choose to feel the joy as much as the pain, I befriend the ‘what is’. When I decide to trust what I know instead of fearing what I don’t, I silence the ‘what ifs’. The coleslaw of our lives will always be coleslaw. But we each have the power to mix the colors and textures for optimum flavor, to whip up a dressing that lifts up the package, and to taste the result of our labor with awe and gratitude for the simple chance to experience life. That’s the road to true freedom. In and out of the kitchen.