When Cooking Stopped Working

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handmade tortellini

Tiny lines. One after another after the other. Each stroke building on the last until patterns take shape. The canvases my friend makes are beautiful and mesmerizing, and they take time.

I also read them as compelling records of her anxiety. How clever, I think, to channel that energy into beauty.

And she loves drawing those lines. She loves it so much that she—much to my disbelief—resents having to eat. To her, eating is a waste of precious line-drawing time.

To me, eating has always been an opportunity. Three times a day, we stop and put food in our mouths. It’s a chance to experience pleasure—joy, even—and balance the way life can take a chunk out of you. And cooking is a way to extend that pleasure—and to make exactly what you crave.

So once, many canvases and scads of meals ago, I wanted to show her why I love cooking and eating. So I made her favorite. She watched as I filled and folded tortellini for a few minutes before piping up that from where she sat, it looked like I was channeling some anxiety of my own.

Indeed.

I realized I self-medicated not so much with food as with cooking. Throughout graduate school, I motivated myself to finish my reading, plan my lectures, and write my pages with the promise of having more time to cook at the end of the day. Mastering soufflés got me through prepping for oral exams. Figuring out paella helped me fine-tune my dissertation proposal.

And so it went. The repetitive thump of kneading bread absorbed the fears of a career transition from academia to publishing. Tending the fire at elaborate barbecues gave me a break from extended family dynamics on vacations. Building a croquembouche meant time to myself as grandparents swarmed at my baby’s first Christmas. 

Again and again, I turned to cooking to keep my brain out of trouble. The planning and prepping, the repetitive tasks of chopping or kneading, shaping or turning, obviously kept my hands busy, but they also gave my brain just enough to do so it couldn’t quite worry about anything else. Best of all, the results were usually good and always gone by morning—along with my anxiety, my depression, my nerves (at least for a bit).

Cooking’s curative properties found their limit in the face of a pandemic.

At first, I went at it like everyone else. Sourdough starter bubbled on the counter. Kimchi fermented in a crock. Homemade noodles hung from a broomstick.

But it didn’t work.

I didn’t love it. I wasn’t even enjoying it. And it was doing nothing to quell my mounting anxiety. No matter how many pizzas I tossed or samosas I pinched shut, I didn’t feel one iota better. It was as if my hands could never be busy enough. My brain didn’t—wouldn’t—take a break.

A fellow cook recommended doubling down. So I tried new recipes to mix up flavors and techniques. It worked. Sort of. For a bit. But not really. My problem wasn’t boredom. My problem was despair.

Not just about the pandemic and whatever else was exploding at any given moment, but despair at losing something I loved. Of losing something that used to bring me joy just when I needed it most.

So I cooked on, producing most of the dinners we ate. For months I cooked without joy, without satisfaction, without relief. Until one day, depressed by how much I wasn’t enjoying it, I asked my husband to take over the cooking, not for a night or two as he regularly does, but for a week. When that one ended, I asked for another.

Each bite of those dinners, one after the other, mitigated my malaise. I let myself forget about cooking and how it let me down when I needed it most, and I sank into the luxurious taste of letting someone else deal with dinner.

Cooking, I realized, isn’t just a way for me to channel nervous energy; it’s how I take care of people. In the face of a pandemic, such care seemed futile. Carnitas tucked in homemade tortillas were no substitute for my son’s sad, vanished senior year in high school. Long-simmered tomato conserva couldn’t heal my husband’s injured business. Pan-fried chive dumplings didn’t make it safe to visit our parents.

Instead of trying to fix all that, I needed to let someone take care of me. To eat a meal and enjoy the distraction. To have the time to realize that even though food wasn’t going to cure our pandemic problems, it could still bring us moments of joy. Those moments may not be the medical-grade balm I wish they were, but they don’t hurt. When I let the moments I spend mincing herbs or peeling tomatoes be just that, I found my brain, once again, started to click into the task. The minute I stopped expecting anything of cooking other than dinner, my focus returned.

Spring—with its longer days and vaccine-fueled hope—finds me back folding tortellini or at least braising some mapo tofu to distract myself at the end of exhausting Zoom-filled days. I’m happy it works. Each cut or fold is just a tiny line I draw, one after the other, until dinner forms.

Illustration: Dan Bransfield