My Best Kitchen Tool? Myself

Having a limb difference has never hindered my cooking. In fact, it’s made the kitchen a place for me to reclaim joy.
By Alexis Hillyard
My Best Kitchen Tool? Myself

Photo by Buffy Goodman.

When my younger sister, Ainsley, was two, she nicknamed the spot where my left arm ends “Bebe.” I was born without a left hand due to a condition called amniotic band syndrome. From that day on, Bebe developed his own personality. I would put on shows for my sister, where Bebe was the good guy, and “Biggie” (the name we gave to my right hand) was the bad guy. Together, we spent hours laughing in the imaginary world we created with my unique limbs.

I experienced joy and pride around my limb difference from a young age. My family was always in my corner, helping me cut my food or tie my shoes (but only if I asked first) and giving me space and encouragement to find my own way of doing things.

This is the kind of playfulness we can easily forget as busy adults. My intense jobs and life stress caused me to float further away from this joy with each passing year. Due to myriad reasons, I developed some mental health challenges in my mid-20s, as well as a gluten intolerance. This created a perfect storm of conditions that led to me not feeling great about my body, while at the same time confusing my relationship with food and eating. I would at times catch myself hiding my stump in public—something I only ever did as a teenager. I also noticed that the limited food choices caused by my intolerance brought up a restricted kind of eating that echoed an eating disorder I had in high school. This was a sign to me that something needed to change.

In my early 30s, I decided to become a vegan after being a vegetarian for more than half of my life. Since I was still gluten-intolerant, this made for an interesting puzzle to sort out. What could I eat that was vegan, gluten-free and delicious? I couldn’t afford to eat out all the time, so I figured I would need to start cooking for myself. I had never really considered myself a cook, nor had I made much beyond easily available things: simple salads and sandwiches, pasta and store-bought pizzas and hummus. I scoured the internet for recipes: cauliflower chicken wings, tofu scrambles, salad rolls, tacos—dishes that looked achievable—and got to it.

Almost immediately, I noticed that, even as a beginner, cooking was a joyful experience for me. I loved peeling, zesting and whisking—and the reasons for this were connected to my early childhood experiences of body love. As I worked my way through recipes, I’d use my stump as a kitchen tool, almost without thinking. I would crush garlic with it, juice lemons with it and even scrape batter off of a bowl with it. I was falling in love with my stump all over again, and it was beautiful.

A woman in a wool sweater is smiling and chopping bell peppers in her kitchen. Photo by Buffy Goodman.

My partner, Alison, loved watching me cook. Almost seven years ago, she encouraged me to film my cooking and put it out into the world. She said that watching me cook could help people challenge their assumptions about disability. I’m always up for a challenge, so I went for it. I asked Alison to film me making waffles. Then, I took my footage to the library and taught myself how to edit a video, start a YouTube page and post it online. It was rewarding work.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if 50 people saw this?” I thought to myself after posting that first video. After a few hours, the view count crept past that benchmark—up to 100, then 300, then more. I couldn’t believe it. The comments and messages started to roll in, and I quickly realized I had made something important to people for many reasons. It turned out to be really important to me, too. I made a commitment to putting out weekly cooking episodes on my YouTube channel, and Stump Kitchen was born.


I decided early on not to care too much about my appearance, or worry about wearing a bra, putting on makeup or swearing, because the idea of pretending to be anyone other than who I am made my skin crawl. I just couldn’t do it. It’s like the mental health storms I’d experienced in my 20s had stripped back my protective layers, so that all that was left was someone who didn’t have the energy to be anything other than herself. And a big part of that authentic self was using my disabled body in unique ways as I cooked.

Soon, families were inviting me to film Stump Kitchen videos with their children who had a limb difference. For most of them, it was their first time cooking—or even hanging out—with someone who looked like them. I realized that the happiness I had recaptured for myself when I started cooking was magnified when I cooked with others—and particularly with children. We got to learn new skills, make one-handed jokes, troubleshoot straining hot water out of a pot of boiling potatoes and complain about how annoying can openers are. We had so much fun.

When I was growing up, there was very little limb difference representation in the media. Now, I’m creating my own­ version through my Stump Kitchen work­—and I’m creating it in real time with the very children for whom it’s important. Through the act of cooking for myself, I’m making our world a more accessible and kind place for disabled folks—and a joyful one, too.


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