It’s 2am in early 2012. I’m sat in my university halls. I can’t sleep. It’s a mix of the insomnia that’s plagued me since leaving home half a year ago and hunger from another unsatisfying meal earlier this evening. My halls are catered and we don’t have any more than a fridge and a dodgy microwave in our shared areas, and the nearest place I could actually make food is my parents’ house 20 miles away. But I’m watching a video on how to bake a flourless chocolate cake.
I don’t even like chocolate cake, but my brain is telling my tense, exhausted body that it's what it needs. The presenter, Sophie Dahl, speaks of idyllic dinner parties, describes her recipe as “a little black dress”, and maintains a longing gaze at the camera. But I’m not really paying much attention to her. My focus is on the bowl in front of her and the cake batter inside it being softly folded into shiny white meringue to ensure the cake will rise. More than making me hungry, the video calms the static on the back of my eyelids, and I feel ready to rest.
My move to university marked a significant dip in my life. I’d arrived excited for a new challenge, but as a state school kid, I immediately found myself on the back foot, working twice as hard in all aspects to fit in. I hadn’t studied the great philosophers in the same depth as my fellow students, so couldn’t effortlessly quote Marx when cornered in a seminar debate; my parents didn’t pay my tuition fees; and my small grant meant I couldn’t go out night after night. This, along with the breakdown of my first long-term relationship, left me lonely and isolated.
The inevitable feelings of homesickness were only intensified by the food served in my halls: the same pasta bakes, fry-ups, and sponge cakes every day. It was uninspiring and unhealthy, but thanks to high accommodation prices, my only option. I remember eating a lot at uni, partly to justify the ludicrous amount of money I was spending to be in catered halls, partly because I was feeding sadness. The more my diet and connected self-worth spiralled downward, the more I ate to self-medicate and feel better. I felt crap. I felt I looked crap. I wanted some control of my diet, my body, and my emotions.
During a seminar one afternoon in early 2012, I began thinking of food, and an image stuck in my brain: bread. Homemade bread, stuffed with rich deli meat and mozzarella. I knew right away I couldn’t buy it anywhere. It had to be homemade, and that made it even more appealing.
I went to my room and started searching words. “Bread, meat stuffed, tv show.” Eventually I found the clip: from Jamie Oliver’s first TV series, The Naked Chef. He makes a bread for a hangover breakfast, stuffed with egg, ham, cheeses, and herbs. Being able to find the recipe and bookmark it, knowing I had the video at hand for future panic, was reassuring.
Throughout my first year of uni I would repeat this process: feel scared, find food show, watch. I’d watch episodes and clips over and over until the recipes became ingrained in my mind. When I got a TV in my first student house I would write all my essays with Food Network on in the background. I’d spend hours in our cold basement kitchen watching YouTube repeats.
My watching and reading of recipes has a process. When life seems too much and my chest tightens and the world spins I will put on a video I have watched before for a meal I know I would want to eat. When browsing food channels and shows, I prefer basic cooking programmes: a chef, in a kitchen for 30 minutes, little more. I like watching shows like MasterChef, but the lack of recipe information and sometimes poor preparation can be off-putting. I will watch new cooking shows too, but this happens more when I’m feeling calmer, so I can have another go-to in times of sadness. Simply, when my mind isn’t quite working right, I want to be in the care of a professional, and able to see the process.
I read cookbooks less when I feel bad, mainly due to the size of most cookbooks making it hard to find the right recipe, and the fact that most lack photos of assembly for my mind to tie together into a step-by-step narrative. Still, cookbooks offer me a creative outlet that at times of emotional lows can provide a lift; when I’m hungry and my mind is blanking, I can look in one of my books and know I will find something new and satisfying. I have often commuted with cookbooks in my bag to stave off tube anxiety. At 8am on the Northern line in London, there’s no better comfort than intensely reading the recipe for Gizzi Erskine’s Vietnamese coffee cheesecake, as now I am free from catered halls and controls on my diet, I can do more than dream of the dish – I can actually make it.
In actual cooking, I’ve found a way to lock myself away from the world. You can’t look at Twitter, text, or use a phone in any way when your hands are covered in dough. Cooking is a chance to switch off for a few hours to reach a productive end.
When I try to think about why I turn so quickly to recipes and food in times of sadness, the answer seems to be that my happiest memories in life are tied to cooking. One of my only memories of my nan is having lunch in her nursing home – 20 years on, I can still taste the sausages and chips we were served. And the only happy memories I have of my sixth-form boyfriend were the dinners his mother would leave out for us to feast on after late-night house parties. When my Burmese family would visit, my dad would put out platters of pakoras and samosas and grill a farm’s worth of tandoori chicken. In short, my happiest memories are linked to food, and I have grown up thinking that love and happiness are symbolised through it.
When alone and depressed in my uni room, I would watch food videos and imagine making the meals for my family. To be able to buy a leg of lamb and put on a grand Easter lunch in a kitted-out kitchen to show my family how loved they were. While some people imagine packing in work and moving to a Caribbean island, I dream of spending my days making spice rubs and overnight marinades for family and friends, hosting grand dinner parties where I always over-cater, and presenting it all in shiny, cast-iron posts. Odd, perhaps, but it’s dreaming of making these rich dishes in beautiful kitchens that gets me through my day.
And cooking has since always been there at times of anxiety. In truth, it’s my go-to plan when I don’t feel very brave. At uni, when I didn’t want to spend nights out with crowds and unfriendly types, I turned my evenings into my own cooking classes, watching video after video and perfecting techniques. At my first internship, instead of speaking for the first six months, I quietly left cakes by the kettle and waited until someone spoke to me. In relationships, when unable to verbally communicate affection due to crippling fear of rejection, I’ve found cooking a favourite meal is a good way to politely put out that I kind of like them. While I’m aware that no plate of food or book will forever fix my fears, I also know that as humans, we eat to survive, and that’s exactly my plan.