In May 2020, Nigella Lawson, a TV cook I credit more than any other for their influence on my culinary attitude and zest for home cooking, wrote the words:
“Yes, we cook to eat, but more than that cooking and eating are ways of creating order and marking out time when our days can seem threateningly amorphous and tinged with inevitable anxiety. For the eater, this focus on pleasure can be a saving grace; but the cook, too, can find shelter in the repeated practices that put food on the table.”
Those close to me know food, or rather the preparation and cooking of food, is an emotional experience for me, a comfort and creativity. But on reading these words back in May, I kept returning to the phrase “repeated practices”, the rituals I associated with cooking and how closely this was linked to my mental health.
Every Saturday when I wake up, I make myself an espresso and turn on Saturday Kitchen, followed by a “treat” breakfast and the latest episode of Mary Berry, Tom Kerridge, Nigel Slater, or my fave, Nigella. I’ve done this since I was a child – watching Saturday morning cooking shows with my dad (then, perhaps only he having the coffee) and have scarcely gone a weekend without it since. This Saturday morning ritual is often the only moment in the week I have to myself, a moment of solace where I sit and do nothing else but delight in the adventures and excitement of the world of food.
When suffering with severe anxiety and panic disorder a few years ago, my relationship with cooking grew even deeper. Cooking was the part of my life I could control. The process, the speed, the taste. I found the joy and calm in cooking I had always felt, but it grew, allowing me to connect to others at a time when I found it hard to connect with myself. In the darkest moments of my mental illness I struggled to be out in public for long periods of time, and I would often cancel on friends who wanted to go for dinner, drinks or coffee. However, I always felt I could invite them over to my house, my safe space, for dinner. These small gatherings allowed me to feel connected to my friends, to cook them a meal to show them I loved them in spite of my distance, and (of course) catch up on all the gossip I’d missed from the night before.
In the first lockdown my partner moved into our flat for a few months and we spent a lot of our free time cooking. We tried new recipes together, mostly good, some not-so-good, and connected over the moments of joy cooking could bring. But it was also a time when I needed my routine, my rituals, my “me” time. My Saturday morning ritual of sitting with a coffee, by myself, became a daily ritual. My Saturday “treat” breakfasts, became daily breakfasts. And while cooking shows remained a Saturday staple, I explored the wonders of foodie Netflix: The Chef Show, Ugly Delicious, Street Food, Chef’s Table, and TV’s best cooking competition the American Barbecue Showdown (yes I said it – sorry, Bake Off).
I was once again reminded of the lessons cooking can bring; as Nigella so eloquently ends the article that inspired this story “what we learn in the kitchen always teaches us a lesson for life out of it, too”.
So with that in mind, I’d also like to share some of the joy from my lockdown rituals. Some dishes I made with my partner, some by myself – all with no real recipe but with a knowledge that it was an enjoyable experience, one I hope you too can find in cooking.
My American-Barbecue-Showdown-inspired beef brisket two ways
Fool-proof flatbreads, spiced cauliflower, zesty cabbage salad and homemade hummus
Football-is-back-on fried chicken
Sexy aubergine and pepper pasta
My slightly broken but golden tahdig with lentils
Shaohsing wine steamed sea-bass
The aforementioned “treat” breakfasts
And to finish us off, the nation’s favourite – and mine: