For Darlene Reed, cooking is both how she connects and disconnects.

Time in the kitchen is hers. It’s how she unwinds after a long day, a place of order.

At least, until she gets hold of it.

“I make a mess,” the Mooreville resident and retired Mantachie elementary school teacher said. “I mess up just about every pot and pan in the kitchen.”

Reed’s modest kitchen is sandwiched between two small dining areas – each packed with antique furniture, the kinds of pretty plates that mostly never get used and plenty of family photos – at the far side of an expansive living space. The kitchen counters float between rows of white cabinetry and are cluttered with all the cooking utensils, spices, pans knick knacks and snacks Reed needs to make a thorough, satisfying mess.

This is her happy place.

“Baking is relaxing to me,” she said. “If I’d had a stressful day at school, I’d come home and bake. It was relaxing to me.”

From a chair across the living room, her husband, Greg, laughed.

“There’s the reason we’re on diets,” he said.

That would be a relatively recent development, and it’s mostly been going well. The couple have traded some of their carbohydrates for greenery – white rice for the cauliflower kind, flour-based noodles for those made with sliced zucchini. They eat a lot of roasted meats and veggies these days.

“I haven’t fried anything in months and months,” Reed said. She almost managed to hide the regret in her voice.

The diet is tough, because food remains a big part of the Reeds’ traditions. Despite being empty nesters, she and her husband still set the table and eat dinner together every night. Each year around the holidays, they host a big meal for their Sunday school class. At Thanksgiving, it’s their house the rest of the family returns to for a king’s feast. And on Christmas Eve, the couple enjoys a quiet meal with their grown children, who return home with requests for childhood favorite dishes.

For the Reeds, Darlene Reed especially, food is the great social lubricant. It is the common ground on which everyone stands. She often brings her Sunday school class home-baked treats. She did the same for her students when she was still teaching.

“Everybody likes to eat,” she said.

Reed’s love of cooking started early. Around age 5, she was spending hours with either of her two grandmothers, Mamaw Riley or Mawmaw Neely, inside their kitchens. The former made a German chocolate cake – a frequent blue ribbon winner at the Itawamba County Fair – that Reed was determined to master. It’s now one of her go-tos.

The food her grandmothers made, and the time they put into making it, inspired her.

“Cooking is, I think, a lost art,” she said. “People don’t want to put in the time anymore.”

It’s why she spends so much time in the kitchen, cluttering up the place. There’s a joy in following a set of instructions, in putting things together and making something delicious.

“Cooking is my time,” she said.

She likes to be by herself in the kitchen. Sometimes, she’ll listen to music. Often, she works in silence, alone with her thoughts.

“It’s just good therapy,” she said. “And then when you see the final product, you can look back and say, ‘Oh, I made that.’”

And then she gets to share it with the people she loves, and feel just a bit closer to them because of it.

adam.armour@journalinc.com

Twitter: @admarmr

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