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Ina Garten and me at her home workspace in East Hampton, NY. Photo by William Brangham.

What Ina Garten taught me about food, love and life

The first time I made Ina Garten’s arugula, watermelon, and feta salad, I knew I had discovered my food soul sister. Those simple ingredients sang a close beautiful harmony; the flavors bursting with the essence of summer. I was a freshman in college and working as a nanny — the family owned several of her cookbooks, and a perfect kitchen for trying out new recipes.

Garten’s recipes have since been a benchmark throughout my cooking journey. She taught me that cinnamon and coffee bring out chocolate’s true flavor. Her party planning tips have made me a more confident hostess. Her calm, approachable demeanor — in her books and on TV — made me feel like I could cook like her and have fun doing it. Her cookbooks read like personal narratives, as if she was telling me about her life from her own kitchen island.

I’ve turned to cooking too in trying times. A good dinner and a glass of wine soothe a tough day at work. And I credit Ina for helping me regain my footing after the end of my first serious long-term relationship.

After a breakup, you find yourself trying to locate the person you were before, like untangling a bowl of spaghetti. I began searching for things that had been a part of my single life. Like a long-lost friend, Ina came back into my life. I was desperate to reconnect.

One of the first things I realized was how much more time I had to myself — and to cook for myself. I fell deeply back in love with indulging my food whims.

Marinara sauce from scratch? Sure! Butternut squash risotto? Don’t mind if I do! Summer brought beefsteak tomato salad with homemade blue cheese dressing. That fall, I roasted my first whole chicken in a cast iron skillet. More than the food, cooking allowed me to reconnect with my truest self, where I’ve always felt comfortable. The kitchen once again became a place of grounding, a place where I could immerse myself in recipes and ingredients and not think about the residual emotional hurt. I began having friends over for leisurely dinner parties, and Ina always had a starring role at the table. The rushes I would get after successfully executing a new dish reminded me where I started.

Six months later, I found myself in my first post-breakup relationship. The time soon came for me to cook him dinner for the first time. For days I drafted potential menus featuring ingredients I knew he liked. Just like Ina taught me, I made a game plan. The night of the dinner, I was confident but a bit nervous. I served the main course (pasta with clams) and a salad with Dijon vinaigrette. I waited for his reaction. Nothing. I would have settled for some “mmms.” Nothing. At last, I asked, “How is everything?” Without looking up he said, “Good, but the salad dressing has too much mustard.” We stopped seeing each other soon after that.

Fast forward a year later, while producing a piece for the PBS NewsHour, I’m standing next to Ina at her kitchen island, talking to her about love, life, her husband Jeffrey and about to make — you guessed it — a Dijon vinaigrette. I told her about my date and his “constructive criticism.” Without missing a beat she said, “If someone ever criticizes a meal you’ve made for them, it’s over.”

So, for now, I’m enjoying each course as it comes. The next dish I plan to tackle is Ina’s brisket with onions and leeks — that takes more than four hours. But that’s okay. Brisket, like dating, requires time and patience. Thanks to Ina, I’m ready for the challenge.

Watch Ina Garten’s interview with PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham here.

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