LONDON — There was one major problem with my plan to spend hours in the kitchen, hours reading cookbooks. I was a foreign correspondent. I did not have a domesticated lifestyle. “You need to know,” I had told the woman who would later become my wife when we began to date seriously, “that this is the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only way I can make money. Besides, I love it. I will never stop doing it. I will always travel. I will always be away for much of the year.”
“Sure,” she said, “that’s ﬁne. I’m busy too, you know.”
She meant it; she truly didn’t mind my going away for long spells. But I minded, more and more. The truth was, I had begun, for some indistinct period of months or possibly a couple of years, to feel less in love with war zones that I proclaimed.
This was me at 30: I was with my dear friend Richard Miron, a radio reporter for the BBC, and we were making our way through a dusty lemon grove in the Gaza Strip at the start of the Second Intifada. It was the fall of 2000. We were near a heavily fortiﬁed Israeli army position, and in recent days the Israeli soldiers, unseen behind their walls of concrete, had been shooting dead quite a few Palestinians. The lemon trees provided us with cover, but then the bullets started zipping through the heavy early-afternoon citrus air of Gaza and past us, breaking the sound barrier in a sharp crack. “Look at these lemons,” I said, stopping to pick some off a tree as we ran through the grove with our bodies bent low. “They’re the most lemony lemons I’ve ever smelled.”
“What the fuck are you doing?” Richard said.
“Picking fruit,” I replied, stufﬁng the ﬁrm lemons and their green pointy leaves into my pockets. I tore one open, and the sour, delicious juice dripped down my hand. The perfect meeting of a fresh ingredient with a life-threatening moment. I was very happy. “They can’t see us among all these trees, you know.” The bullets continued to crack nearby.
Something would happen in my brain in those moments. The ﬁght-or-ﬂight chemical, norepinephrine, seemed to surge inside me, making me feel hyperalert, almost limitlessly strong, and completely in control of my body. I experienced a beatiﬁc calm, a sense of extraordinary well-being and generosity. The lemons glowed with the deepest yellow. Their leaves seemed perfectly formed. My friend Richard was the most amiable companion possible. A distilled form of friendship was born amid the ﬂying lead and the norepinephrine. Richard would be a friend for life, I immediately knew. I wanted to stay in the grove all afternoon gathering these perfect lemons with my friend.
“This is ridiculous. I’m getting the fuck out of here,” he said, turning his back on me. I followed.
This was me at 36, about a year after my mother died and at the back end of years of visiting and living in war zones: Slumped against the wall of the Jabal Amel Hospital in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, I tried to get a Lebanese man’s blood off the soles of my sneakers and onto the sidewalk. I looked at the sky where the unseen Israeli drones were buzzing and began to think about a meal I would cook when I got home. I needed to start on my Elizabeth David-led course of self-education. It would be from "French Country Cooking," which I kept in my bag at all times during this bad, stupid war. It would be a heavy meal, aggressively extravagant, with bacon-fatty casseroles, tureens of soup with potatoes, desserts with cream, so much warm heaviness that my guests would be pinned down by the weight and the homeliness and the coziness of a classic French meal.
There was not a lot of conversation going on right now as my friends and I sat and stood outside the hospital. A photographer friend pulled on a cigarette and said, “This is the last one, honestly. I’m not doing any more wars.”
“Same,” I said. We both knew we were lying, and yet I recognized the trapped look in his face. How else could he make a living? How else could I? Wouldn’t we miss it too much?
We had just come out of the emergency department of Jabal Amel. It had become the main stage in the most pointless and one of the most vicious wars I had ever covered. This was where the medics, themselves targets for Israeli missiles, brought the injured.
Inside, moments earlier, we had watched a man die. We had tried to avoid slipping on his blood, which had poured onto the square tiles of the hospital ﬂoor when the porters had carried him into the room. By then he had only one arm attached to his body, and his instantly barbecued ﬂesh was ﬁlling the room with a bitter meat smell.
The doctors had not really bothered. They had placed a transparent plastic tube down his throat, but it was a token gesture. After about a minute he was dead. One of the doctors, his hands protected by white latex gloves, had felt around in the exposed mess of muscle and windpipe and blood and spine in the man’s neck and had pulled out a two-inch piece of metal. It was one of many pieces of the three Israeli rockets that had sliced into the man as he stood with a small cup of coffee in his hand on the side of the road a few minutes earlier.
“Ah,” the doctor had said, holding up the rocket fragment for the others to see.
My friends and I milled about outside. We were all suddenly desperately thirsty and drank all the water we could ﬁnd. I hid in the imaginings of unexplored culinary lands, places of comfort where I knew I could not do much good to the world at large, but perhaps I could make my friends and family happy.
“I’ve never made pastry,” I thought. “That would be new and challenging. I’ve never boiled potatoes for gnocchi, boned a duck, shucked oysters, or cooked a soufﬂe. I’ve never made cassoulet. I should deﬁnitely make a cassoulet when I get home.”
Read additional excerpts from Matt McAllester's recently released memoir, "Bittersweet: Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen":