How homemade mayonnaise saved my postpartum sanity

Companionship during new parenthood comes from the most unexpected of places

Published November 27, 2022 5:00PM (EST)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

My mum worried so much that she staged an intervention with me via FaceTime from New Zealand. "You can't survive on frozen pizza," she said. I glanced at the fig bar wrappers, cartons of chicken broth, and greasy cardboard dotted with dried pizza sauce overflowing the trash can. "We eat burgers, too," I reassured her.

Before Arthur arrived, I spent Sunday afternoons making pappardelle by hand, using "00" flour, kneading the dough with my knuckles, and rolling it out into one smooth, even layer.

Now, while darkness enshrouded my neighbors' bedrooms, I was awake, changing diapers, nursing, and swaddling my newborn. When friends clacked at keyboards, examined patients, or taught middle schoolers math, I bicycled Arthur's froggy legs because humans aren't born knowing how to pass gas.

I couldn't cook because Arthur always wanted to be held. "Why don't you put him down and let him cry?" My friend Katharina asked over the phone. Words stuck to my throat and tears pricked my eyes. I appreciated that my friend prioritized my feelings, but my heart clenched at the idea of ignoring the only human I saw for most of my waking hours.

Like many expecting parents, I overlooked an insidious, rarely discussed mental health problem: loneliness. During a 2017 interview with The Washington Post, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called it an "epidemic" in the U.S., saying it reduced humans' lifespan by about as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, pregnant and postpartum women around the world reported high levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and post-traumatic stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Snowy winter days rolled in, forcing away the sun. I didn't step beyond my front door for days, sometimes weeks. Worried that the silence might delay Arthur's first words, I narrated the play-by-play of folding laundry, washing dishes, and refolding the laundry he toppled over. When I craved conversation, I wandered into the kitchen — the room I associated most with dinner parties, late-night conversations, and friends dropping in for afternoon tea. Isolated and frustrated, I found comfort in an unexpected form: a condiment.

My endless Internet scrolling introduced babywearing parents, sharing photos of their children perched on their backs in woven wraps. After seeing these images week after week, I borrowed a wrap from the local babywearing library and strapped Arthur to my torso. I chose to make homemade mayonnaise as my first post-baby cooking project since it only requires three ingredients: oil, eggs, and vinegar.

I dusted off my measuring spoons and grabbed my raspberry-pink stick blender. I cracked a large, freckled brown egg into my narrowest glass jar as my left hand coiled around Arthur to restrain his flailing, outstretched arms. My right hand poured in distilled vinegar and oil. I squeezed the trigger on the blender until the mixture frothed up the sides of the jar, threatening to spew out. The "mayonnaise" dripped like cake batter. Arthur didn't cry, but I nearly did.

Armed with research on emulsions, I learned that the oil needed time to break into teensy droplets to spread throughout the water. A magical substance in egg yolks (lecithin) kept the repelling oil and water molecules separated, yet harmoniously adjacent to each other. I tried trickling in the canola oil but most of it dribbled down the outside of the jar, pooling on my counter like golden syrup running over pancakes.

On my third try, I set a wide-mouthed jar in my sink. I drizzled the oil, pausing to lift the blade attachment to suck everything in. The beige mixture bubbled. I pressed the trigger even as the motor heated my fingers. Mayonnaise, like many emulsions, looks like it'll never come together . . . until it spontaneously thickens. I shook the jar. Finally, I achieved the gel-like consistency of store-bought mayo.

I clutched the mayonnaise as a symbol of success, though I hesitated to test my luck with anything more complicated. Months went by and I was making three jars a week. My friend Benjamin texted a photo of lush French toast from a trendy London cafe, and I parried with mayo photos. We brainstormed ways to use mayonnaise on a video call — I learned to toss it with shredded cabbage and sugar to make coleslaw, stir in chopped dill and pickles for tartar sauce, and fold in diced anchovies and capers for rémoulade sauce. Finding ways to use excess mayonnaise, lest my hard work goes to waste, rejuvenated my home cooking.

Katharina drove across the country to see us. She last visited before Arthur could crawl. I popped brioche buns and frozen Impossible patties into the toaster oven with him wrapped around me. I fished around the fridge for a frosty jar. A faint, vinegary sharpness and mellow acidity from the Dijon mustard reassured me this batch remained unspoiled. I grabbed another for the burgers. I poured vinegar into the first jar to make coleslaw dressing and stirred in honey. Mānuka honey fixes everything: sour fruits, sore throats, separated friendships.

The toasted brioche smelled of the rainy afternoons, years ago, when I camped out at Kat's apartment while she baked sourdough using recipes from San Francisco's Tartine Bakery.

When she arrived, my heart thudded as if a restaurant critic had appeared. I stepped into the bathroom to compose myself. As I walked out, she asked, eyes wide, "Is this mayonnaise homemade?" She savored the coleslaw, making "mmm" sounds and cleaning her plate.

Arthur turned one last month. I invited a dozen friends from Zoom parent support groups to a potluck. On a sunny fall afternoon, I presented a birthday cake made with yellow cake mix and homemade frosting. Like mayonnaise, the frosting took 3 ingredients, 10 minutes, and my pink blender. I sliced the four-layer cake. "Oohs" and "ahhs" echoed the compliments I used to hear about my handmade pappardelle. I handed a piece to a friend, then another, and another.

By Anna Rider

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Essay Food Food52 Mayonnaise Parenting Postpartum