Kitchen Therapy: A Soldier Copes Through Cooking

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When my family of seven sits down to shrimp tacos, one of our favorite meals, it's my Army Major husband just home from teaching his cadets chemical equations who prepares the meal. But he wasn’t always the top chef in our house, that used to be my job. After two more kids added to the pair I brought into our marriage ten years ago, four moves from California to Arkansas to New York to Washington State and back to New York, a tour in Afghanistan, and his two teaching assignments as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at West Point, the family prefers his cooking to mine. I let him have that small victory. 

We married a decade ago and both assumed the roles of our parents never having discussed another alternative. My husband had unspoken expectations that I’d prepare our family meals in the same way it was for him as a child. Without much thought I stepped into the same domestic shoes I’d watched my mother struggle to fit into as she worked full time, cared for a chronically ill spouse, and raised a child. She, too, provided all the meals for our family, and I, in turn, thought I was solely responsible for my household meals as well. During the first-half of our marriage, I cooked basic meals during the week, picked up takeout on weekends, and my husband fired up the grill when the weather permitted. He loved to barbecue and appeared to be at peace while he prepared food. The menu was simple: always chicken, corn on the husk, and baked beans. I didn’t expect that my former Commander husband harbored dreams of being Bobby Flay. 

Five years into our marriage my husband received deployment orders. Our family appeared dismantled during the time he was gone. We reunited as a unit for the first time after not living together for two years, in a new place, and I felt like I’d moved in with a stranger. My husband’s deployment in Kunar Province, an area made famous by Mark Walberg in Lone Survivor, changed him. I didn’t know what to do or say. The kids and I arrived in a new home near Seattle, Washington, the week of Father’s Day. I'd found the house online and hoped it would be a great place for our household to get reacquainted. My husband arrived in Washington first and familiarized himself with our new environment. He was perfect in providing all the information he knew we'd want to know right off the road, like where were the best food places and parks for our kids. Having no clue what he might like, I settled on a new charcoal grill with a smoker. I’d overheard him mention one over the phone. 

At first, it felt odd to purchase a cooking gift. You’d always heard women complain about receiving appliances for gifts, and I wasn’t one to want anything for the kitchen, but I was at a loss and took a chance. I also paid to have it assembled so it would arrive ready for use. His entire demeanor changed when he set up the new cooker and seasoned it that initial time. He picked up groceries like it was an order and prepared his chicken dinner for our family that same evening. The kids and I had a difficult cross-country move from New York to Washington State, so I attempted to get us settled in our new surroundings. That first familiar meal was a welcome for everyone. For the rest of that summer, he grilled burgers and hot dogs, added steaks and chicken breasts, made kabobs and fish. We were stationed in a place where in fall the days got dark early and stayed that way until late the next morning, and the rain put a damper on outside cooking. Yet my husband continued with his culinary endeavors.

He started researching alternative ways of eating such as the paleo method. The low-carbohydrate lifestyle appealed to the scientist in him who enjoyed mixing and substituting, which was different from the Atkins he’d tried thirteen years ago when we first dated. The family kitchen became his laboratory, therapy and respite all in one. My husband had a difficult tour. He lost someone within his unit very close to him, and another soldier in the same unit received The Purple Heart Medal under President Barack Obama. I don’t know what his experiences were in Afghanistan, but I know his time in the kitchen provided a healing effect that he benefitted from. With the demands on our modern, military marriage, we needed all hands on deck. My 50-hour workweek as a freelance writer took place at home and included caring full time for a special needs child, another school-ager, a disabled parent, looking after my adult children, being the wife of a military commander, and volunteering as a counseling instructor while I managed our home. I’d been a counselor prior to our marriage and had training to work with military couples and families while my husband was selected for the second time to command an Army troop of 250 soldiers and their families. With all of that on my plate, meal prep was my weak spot. My husband, on the other hand, seemed to relish in it. I’d forgotten how he prepared Cornish hens and twice-baked potatoes on our second date, and what I remembered most was how at home he was in the kitchen. How relaxed he was. How he smiled. How he loved to cook.

While my tastes are usually pretty simple, I tried everything that my husband labored over except the ones heavy on the curry (I’m not a fan of things that are too spicy), but those dishes were always a hit with his fellow soldiers who he shared them with. I might not have loved the pork-fried cauliflower rice that set my mouth on fire, but the men and women of our military did. There was stuffed salmon, trout and shrimp scampi that our kids called shrimp spaghetti, and buffalo chili and burgers. When he fired up the food processor and served mango avocado salsa on halibut, my favorite fish, oh yes, I was in love, and so happy. I even tried the almond butter fudge bars he made for dessert. 

Cooking doesn’t solve problems but being in the kitchen when you love it can definitely soothe your soul. It has for my soldier husband. And for our family, coming together at the end of the day allowed for an opportunity for healing, and none of that would have been possible without our commanding chef.