How to Keep Alive
Appetite, a universal wolf.” — Shakespeare
(Epigraph to “How to Keep Alive” by M.F.K. Fisher.)
Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” — Shakespeare
(Epigraph to The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker.)

My junior year of college, I moved off-campus with my boyfriend and two classmates into a house on a dirt road. The house had a big back yard with a giant gnarled old crabapple tree which during storms shelled our roof deafeningly with underripe fruit. The kitchen was big and bright and opened on to a solarium; I was utterly in love. The four of us immediately went grocery shopping; immediately, we lost Peter.

I wandered the aisles; it did not take long to find him: the gangly limbs and 70s-era pageboy hairstyle his mother likely had forever been trimming proved hard to miss. I found him standing in front of the dairy case, staring through the smudged glass doors, clutching a quart of half-and-half to his chest.
“Hey,” I said.
“It’s two dollars,” he said, still staring into the case. He seemed devastated. “I— I thought it was really expensive.”
Peter explained. He and his younger brother had grown up with very little; raised by their mother in a trailer after their father, the famous toxicologist, hung himself.
“As a reward, and this was really rare… I mean, we had to be really good, she gave us each a shot glass of half-and-half. I thought it cost a fortune.”

He bought the quart. After that, I never saw him drink anything else.

The following week, my friend Ellis suddenly moved to Portland. He sent me a message: he had proposed to his high-school girlfriend— they lived in Baltimore and had been together for seven years— and she said no. He left everything and boarded a plane.

He stayed in a hotel for a couple days and then rented a house in Felony Flats, a mile east of us. I went to see him the night he moved in. I knocked and let myself inside; the front door was unlocked. I yelled hello. I walked through the dark house across the carpeted empty rooms. The ceiling fixture in the Master bedroom cast light down the long hallway. In that bedroom were three computers (Ellis worked in IT,) a blanket, the ring box, and a rifle. There was no furniture. Ellis sat on the floor. He snapped the ring box open and closed, open and closed. I sat down next to him.

I didn’t like guns; just being in the room with one made me nervous.
“Is it loaded?” I asked.
He pursed his lips. Dumb question. He continued to snap the ring box open and closed. The narrowest gold band, the small solitaire diamond. He smelled reassuringly of fabric softener; I considered this a check in the positive column when it came to depression.
“Can I see it?” I asked, pointing to the ring box. I held out my hand.
He snapped the box closed and handed it to me.
He explained how he would do it. He would not have to use his toe, even with the length of the barrel he could discharge the weapon with his hand.

I listened, hardly breathing; out of my depth. There was a can of compressed air next to one of the computers. But it wasn’t— the top was wrong— it was Easy Cheese. When he finished speaking, I met his eyes and said, “What’s your favorite meal?”
I had my own kitchen, the luster of this would never wear off.
He thought for a minute. “Beef Stroganoff,” he said. “My mom made it maybe once a year… with those giant-ass egg noodles.” He held up thumb and finger to show me the width. “Oh man, the gravy was so good. It was definitely from a box. I think it was… a red packet? Do you know what I’m talking about? I loved that stuff.”
I was nodding. I had no idea what he meant.
“Do you want to come over for dinner this week? I’ll make it,” I said, considering. “What day is good for you?”
It occurred to me that he might not kill himself if he had somewhere to be.

When I got home, I looked up the recipe. In The Joy of Cooking, Rombauer declares that “Stroganoff is an elegant way to use up any leftover tenderloin pieces cut from the whole filet.” I chuckled: this was not written for college students.

I bought tri-tip because it was cheap. I bought sour cream. The only wide egg noodles I could find were in the ethnic aisle of the grocery store, in the Jewish section. I loved the enormous shiny cellophane bags of them, piled on a shelf below the foods of my childhood: gefilte fish, matzoh, coconut macaroons.

Ellis came over Wednesday night and I put him to work slicing the onion.
“I don’t want to do it. They make me cry,” I told him.
It would be years before I understood the importance of a properly-sharpened knife.
Slicing onions also made Ellis cry, which made him laugh, and swear at me. He was short; I could see sweat beading in his buzz-cut. I made the roux. I seared the beef and the onion. The recipe called for discarding the onion, which had barely cooked in the time it took to brown the beef. Skeptical of wastefulness, I removed the meat and added sliced mushrooms and more butter to the onions in the sizzling pan. The noise filled the room.

I stirred sour cream, dijon mustard, and pepper into the roux. We boiled water for the noodles.

My boyfriend set the kitchen table. There was a lot of Stroganoff; we sat there and ate it until it was gone. Ellis ate the most. He was small; skinny from depression and a diet of aerosol-propelled cheese-product. My grandparents would have been impressed; they would have called him A Good Eater.

Ellis messaged me when he got home that night. He had horrible stomach cramps from overeating.
“Satan is in my stomach,” he wrote.
The recipe for Beef Stroganoff in the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking appears on page 666.

The cookbook, which twenty-five years later I still own, falls open to that page naturally. There are small pale cream-colored smears on either side of the instructions. They are sour cream, or maybe roux. Next to the recipe title, above the tiny italicized suggestion, “4 to 6 servings,” is a note printed in pencil in my own collegiate handwriting: “3 ppl.”

Ellis did not kill himself that week. The follow Wednesday, he came over again, and again we made Stroganoff. More onions, more mushrooms, more Satan. He did not kill himself that week either. I made Stroganoff with Ellis every Wednesday for two months. Eventually he bought furniture, and then found a couple of roommates. Eventually he did marry that high-school sweetheart— the one he had proposed to— and then some years later, they divorced. Ellis is still alive. I have not made Stroganoff since college.

Author: `aqaq`

Tasia Bernie is an essayist, and editor of  She enjoys used bookstores, offal, and hard laughter.  She is a very good eater.  She lives with her daughter and two orange cats in Portland, Oregon.


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