Why I turn to the kitchen in times of distress

Words by Hannah Cole

Culinary therapy is a real thing, and it’s what’s getting me through iso.

How the times have changed: within the space of two weeks, this entire article has taken on another meaning. Initially, I hoped to write about the luxuriating, calming effects of following the culinary world on Instagram. Now, it’s become a necessity – and a worldwide phenomenon.

I’m not alone in my desire to turn to the kitchen in times of distress (or isolation as it might be at this current time). It’s widely understood that cooking, baking, roasting, chopping et al. have therapeutic effects; there’s even a stream of programs entitled “culinary therapy”. Somewhat like active meditation, the act of cooking forces us to slow down, focus on the external and practise grounding ourselves.

The formal method involves drawing on mindfulness by actively engaging the five senses, appreciating the story behind each ingredient, and enabling creativity. Whether practised formally or not, a few peaceful, non-rushed, hours in the kitchen – with wine and soothing tunes – can release the internal ball of stress.

2020 was already a strange year; we started with bushfires, smoke, and uneasy summer breaks. During this time, I found myself avoiding the fashion influencers I once revered on Instagram. I discovered solace, instead, in accounts dedicated to home cooking and the art of hearty meals.

It was simpler, freeing and provided some much-needed respite from the messages telling me to purchase and look fab and do all the *cool* things.

I turned to Rachel Roddy, Laila Gohar, and Bon Appetit amongst others to cleanse me of my turmoil. Three months later, they continue to inspire; they keep me refreshing my feed.

I’ve watched on as Rachel has experienced the ordered isolation of living in Italy during the pandemic. I’ve been by her side as she has concocted ingenious meals from the simple ingredients in her home. The most basic of pasta dishes look like heaven and anchovies finally sound appealing – each dispatch causes me to salivate.

Rachel’s feed is a reminder that life continues, even when it is spent inside. When life is scary and unknown, we keep nourishing and feeding each other.

Similarly, Laila has provided snippets of her socially distanced life in New York. She’s teaching the masses how to prepare a pot of beans and make them delicious. At one point, she even cooked boxed lunches for strangers – a useful mix of lentils and vegetables – encouraging us to “Do nice things for others in difficult times.”

Locally, Dania Portman has been using her plant-based Instagram account to share comfort food. As an antidote to constant bad news, whip up a creamy mushroom pasta or cauliflower nachos. We need this; we deserve some time away from the news cycle, we deserve to feed our souls in other ways.

Cooking makes us feel useful and somewhat in control, even when the rest of the world seems to be falling apart. More than anything, COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of community. When we aren’t panic-buying, we are calling our friends, buying groceries for our elderly and picking up (distanced) conversations with strangers across the road.

I hate to quote High School Musical, but we are all in this together – all over the world. Cooking just happens to be one of the ways we can express our love for each other, stay in touch and incite even the smallest of smiles.

Recently, I was finally brave enough to recreate one of Roddy’s Italian meals myself – chicken polpette in a white wine sauce. She has become my cooking mother guru, so I followed every word closely. I was worried I would let her down. The process engaged all my senses – squishing and moulding the meatballs in my hands, smelling the zesty lemon…

Not surprisingly, it was one of the best meals I have ever made; a whole lotta love and minimal stress were the key ingredients. Every bite made me happy.

Now, with more time on my hands and more need for peace than ever before, I’m dreaming big. I will make pasta from scratch. I will become a sourdough goddess. I will fill my home with such sweet scents that I am sheltered from the harmful toxicity of the outside world (fear, disease, climate change). My kitchen is my bubble and my Instagram feed is the air that fills it.

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