Emotional cooking and culinary therapy
Do it because it feels good
THIS WEEK: Why I cook, a recipe for strawberry sauce, and what cooking can do for your mental health.
If you haven’t been blocked on social media by an anti-vax relative or gotten an 8:30am Monday morning text from your dad that begins with the phrase: “As the world descends further into chaos…” you are having a very different quarantine experience than I am. For the past 6 months I’ve watched friends and acquaintances flee the city to stay with their families in lake houses and friendly suburbs where they assemble jigsaw puzzles and bake bread and film TikToks together and I have to admit: I’m jealous.
As an only child I don’t return home to a house full of siblings and their children, I return to an icily quiet house where I am the only entertainment. My fiercely religious parents and I agree on almost nothing and these days our contact is limited to terse emails. When I visited home for the first time after moving to NYC, I walked into the house after a late flight not to find dinner on the table, but rather all the ingredients for a soup I used to make for my parents piled up suggestively on the kitchen counter. Comfort isn’t waiting for me at home; I’m expected to bring it with me like a signature dish to the potluck.
I started cooking in high school when I decided to become a vegetarian in a firmly meat-and-potatoes family. My mom was a begrudging cook. A meal was on the table every night while my dad was working but “because it’ll taste better” was usually not a valid reason to make the process any more difficult than it needed to be. My dad, on the other hand, always liked to brag about the time in high school when he was expected to cook a meal as a home economics assignment and proudly set the table with Twinkies, defiantly refusing to do “women’s work.” When he retired early, my mom decided that she too would retire from her career as a home cook.
If I wanted a good meal, I would have to make it. Cooking was a purely practical pastime at first, until I realized it was a perfect hobby for someone who can’t stop thinking. Like painting, it was something to do with my hands that was just challenging enough to take my mind off whatever I was anxious about. Unlike painting, though, I sensed some potential to develop competency.
I won’t be heading home to my parents anytime soon to sip whiskey on their deck or gather around a campfire, but last weekend I recreated home for myself by making waffles.
I used to make waffles in an antique waffle iron with a porcelain top hand-painted in red blossoms that my mother either inherited or found in an antique store. Around the time I was born (Or was it before? Tensions are too high to ask my mom right now.) my grandparents lost most of their belongings in a flood, leaving very little, if anything, to pass on to their children, so I’m never sure whether the old items I would find around the house were genuine family heirlooms, or something passed down from older family friends trying to fill the gap, or facsimiles my mom bought at an antique store.
For years I tried to convince her to give me the waffle iron, since I was the only member of the family who used it, but she didn’t want to let it go, and I went without while occasionally searching eBay or Etsy for a similar model. Last week I gave in and bought a new iron from Amazon. And since I was already compromising the integrity of the memory, I decided to upgrade to a Belgian waffle maker.
My early experiences with Belgian waffles were almost exclusively from going to breakfast with my Dad early on a weekend morning. It was rare that we had a free weekend morning, since we were almost always at church early every Saturday and Sunday and the only legitimate reason to skip was illness. But once in a while when services were rescheduled and I was able to drag myself out of bed at 6am (the only time my dad would consider for breakfast) we would go to a charming but run down diner in the small town where we lived and I would order a Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. The waffles were delicious, the strawberries were usually not. And as the diner changed hands, they went from bad to worse until the waffles were serves with a spoonful of melted frozen strawberries.
We didn’t go very often and eventually we gave up on the diner altogether. But I still sought the platonic ideal of Belgian waffles and strawberry sauce and learned to make the sauce correctly myself, so I can recreate the memory better than it was before.
One package strawberries, trimmed and sliced in thirds
3 tbsp salted butter
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar
Splash of vanilla bourbon extract
1/8 tsp cinnamon
Optional: Pinch of orange zest or a couple drops of orange extract
Combine strawberries and butter in a medium sauce pan and place over medium-high heat, stirring until the butter melts. Once the berries start to release juice, add the brown sugar (1-2 tbsp depending on the sweetness of the berries you’re using) vanilla extract, cinnamon and orange zest. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce thickens to the consistency you like.
Serve over waffles (I used this recipe, but added cinnamon) or French toast on a chilly Sunday morning while listening to melancholy folk music.
I think we’re all nostalgic for the early days of quarantine and I think it has a lot to do with the bread baking. What better activity for staving off an overwhelming sense of dread than an all-day measuring, kneading and baking event?
There’s a therapist in my home state of Michigan who specializes in Culinary Art Therapy. The sessions she offers sounds more culinary than therapeutic (meal planning is part of the service) but I have to believe the mental health benefits are real. My own therapist is frequently asking how I’m eating when she hears a higher pitch of stress in my voice, and the impact of diet on mental health is studied well enough to form its own discipline: nutritional psychiatry.
But it’s not just about feeding your brain healthy food. Cooking itself can be a mindfulness practice. And for me, it’s as much a creative expression as a meditation. I started creating my own recipes because the precise measuring and strict adherence to a recipe felt confining. Although, if mindfulness is your goal, I can see how closely following instructions can feel like a relief too. Either way, you’re giving your nervous mind a new tree trunk to gnaw on, which can only help your spiraling anxiety
Once we’ve run out of time frantically savoring the warm weather and the outdoor socializing it facilitates, it’ll feel good to break out the sourdough starter. We will almost certainly be lonelier, but we may be calmer too.
If you’re in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you: this list of NYC restaurant closings to date. (Two sentimental faves —Lucky Strike and Blossom Chelsea — are gone for good 😢)
If you wake up each morning cursing God for this hell year: How science can be as comforting as religion
If your boss thinks a bathroom break counts as “self care”: New corporate wellness initiatives for these unprecedented times (Satire by yours truly)
What are you cooking to calm yourself? (And is it working?) Email me.
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