Begin by poring through your cookbooks, marking recipes you’ve never made before, ones that take a lot of chopping and sautéing and have long cooking times. Soups are best. Make a list more than a page long and go to the store late at night, when you’ve already had two beers and the store is almost empty. Everyone else there is buying cases of Natural Light or Lean Cuisines, or looking conspicuously red-eyed and shopping in groups of three or four, giggling and buying microwavable bacon. Wheel your cart slowly and sedately, pausing to heft and squeeze six or eight different limes before you select one, though they all feel firm and look green and healthy. Fill your cart with produce bags and feel self-righteous about how you shop the edges of the grocery store, like Michael Pollan says. When you check out, confuse the high school employee with your bags of root vegetables with no PLU codes. It is her first day of work. “Rutabagas,” you say. “Turnips. Parsnips.” Watch her ring your parsley up as cilantro but say nothing.
When you get home, put your groceries away. You are amazed that your refrigerator still looks almost empty. Consider beginning to cook, now, when it’s almost midnight, but decide to make a grilled cheese sandwich instead. You imagine yourself as a sort of mad scientist of soup, chopping wildly into the night and watching four simmering pots on the stove, but you are not ready to embrace this image. It is the image of someone who owns a cat, a cat that also stays up late into the night, prowling the four small rooms of your apartment. You have no cat, only two plants. You water your plants and eat your grilled cheese as you watch Columbo. Robert Culp is playing the murderer for the third time in three seasons. You have seen them all. Once he had a mustache, but otherwise he looks exactly the same. When Columbo interviews him at the scene of the crime, you think he should say, “You again? Didn’t I lock you up for killing that guy in the swimming pool last year? Didn’t I see you blackmail a woman in the pilot episode?” He says nothing. You suspend your disbelief for Columbo. He is your favorite dinner date.
The next morning, map out your cooking plan like a logic puzzle. You will make the winter vegetable chowder first, and then use the trimmings to make vegetable broth, and then use the vegetable broth to make roasted red pepper soup, and then use the ends of your roasted peppers to make red broth for tortilla soup. It is a good plan. It feels inevitable. It feels thrifty, like you are getting the most from your $150 of produce.
All day you cook. You love the way it feels to peel a turnip. You love the way the dirt sinks to the bottom in a bowl of water and chopped leeks. You love the way butter melts and bubbles across the bottom of your soup pot. You love the smell of thyme and sage in a pan of caramelizing onions. You listen to Smokey Robinson and sing into your ladle. You do not need anything outside of this room.
Post a recipe to allrecipes.com. Adopt the overly casual attitude of a person creating an online dating profile “for a joke” or “just out of curiosity.” If no one responds to this message you send into cyberspace, you will know that you were always a little too good for this online interaction anyway. Tell yourself that you will write a two, three sentence introduction to the recipe, a variation on a standard zucchini sauté, and then let the food speak for itself. Instead, get caught up in the language of selling yourself. “A great weeknight dinner,” you write, “great as a side or, over gnocchi, as a filling vegetarian entrée.” “Healthy,” you write, “only five ingredients,” you write, “pantry staples,” you write. Realize you have written over a page about how quick this meal is to produce. Scale this back, create a user profile, post the recipe. Exit out of your Internet browser with unnecessary vigor and walk quickly out of the room, as if you have somewhere important to be.
That night, switch between an episode of Columbo and the allrecipes page as you eat reheated corn chowder. You have twelve views and zero ratings, zero comments. Your recipe has been saved to zero recipe boxes. Give it time, you think to yourself, but you cannot. Check three more times before bed.
Get very drunk. Go out with your work friends on some night when everyone is celebrating—a colleague’s promotion, or your office mate’s engagement. Everyone is buying rounds. You think to yourself that this is how people should always drink. It feels so communal, but if everyone buys a round, you realize, the bills will end up being the same. You laugh out loud as you consider this perfect socialist system. The man next to you, a man who works in a different department, leans over to you and smiles.
“What are you laughing at?” he yells over the noise of the bar.
“This is how people should always drink!” you crow back.
“People should always drink?” he asks. He looks at you too condescendingly and too fondly, like you’re a good friend who has had too much to drink, has started making the sort of grand proclamations he expects from you when you’re in this state. You no longer want to make the Karl Marx joke that you have formed in your mind.
“I have to go,” you say. You are aching suddenly to be at home in your empty apartment. You pay your bill, wave to the table on your way out the door, and leave your car in the parking lot. As you walk home, you start to cry for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to you.
Make an omelet when you get home, the no-shortcuts kind, with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese grated in for flavor, and an egg white reserved and stirred in at the last moment for texture. You separate the egg messily and almost lose the omelet onto the stove when you flip it, but in the end it is fluffy and, you think, beautiful, a lovely uniform shade of yellow. Eat it while you watch Columbo. George Hamilton plays the killer, a diabolical psychiatrist, and you are genuinely afraid of him, of his molded hair, of his almost orange skin. Think about texting a joke about George Hamilton to your ex, but none of the quips you think of look casual enough, sober enough, when you type them into your phone. Leave your phone in the living room and go to bed instead.
Begin to set bizarre cooking and eating goals for yourself. When turnips are on sale at the grocery store, buy four pounds of them and determine to try three new turnip recipes that week. You try to shield this habit from the public, but you reveal yourself in unsubtle ways. You get funny looks at work when you eat a Tupperware of roasted root vegetable gratin at a catered lunch meeting, frantic to make headway on the stockpile of food in your fridge.
Check your allrecipes page and discover that you have been rated. Susan2471 has given you two out of five stars. “My husband enjoyed this,” Susan 2471 says, “but my kids wouldn’t touch it.” Click on Susan2471’s username and view her recipes. Her most popular recipe is “Strawberry Funfetti Cake with Chocolate Icing.” It has a rating of five stars. It has been saved to 72,394 recipe boxes. “By adding strawberry jam to a boxed Funfetti cake,” the description reads, “you can make a really special weeknight dessert with only a few pantry staples!” Resent Susan2471’s mastery of the allrecipe jargon. Leave a one star rating and a comment that reads “My kids enjoyed this, but my husband wouldn’t touch it.”
Buy more Tupperware at the grocery store. All of your containers are filled with soup and stacked in the freezer. You eat soup every day, but you are not fast enough. You like how all the plastic containers look in the freezer, though, stacked one upon the other in tidy towers. You have marked all of the tops and sides with masking tape labels. It looks like you are preparing for some personal apocalypse, a private event that will affect only your apartment, but for which you will be very well prepared. You imagine that you will disappear and Columbo will come to investigate your apartment. He will peer into the freezer and see the towers of soup. “Why?” he will ask. “Why all of this quinoa chowder? Why all this leek and potato soup?” You mentally apologize to Columbo as you stir your potato and chickpea stew. You do not know why.
Laura Usselman is an all-the-time literary agent and a some-of-the-time writer. She lives in Brooklyn.
“How to Replace Sex with Cooking and Columbo” first appeared in Ninth Letter.