‘We’re sorry, we are freezing all further hiring at this point due to the current situation.’ I was through to the second round of interviews when they called me to tell me the position is no longer available. I got up, walked into my tiny kitchen and pulled out everything needed to bake some banana bread. I immersed myself in the process. Measured every gram of sugar and butter, chopped up the browned bananas, and whipped the eggs till they were as fluffy as clouds. As I mixed the batter with a hand beater, I shed a quiet tear, and then, just like that I forgot about it all and baked the best banana bread I ever have. It was golden, with the perfect crack in the centre and the walnuts popping through the crust. Baking is my coping mechanism.
Apparently, it is for a lot of us. As Dalgona Coffee takes over instagram and cooking videos storm youtube, I realise so many of us are coping in different ways, but with a common medium — Food. Everyday I see people put up pictures of food they’ve cooked, a dish they’ve mastered. A task accomplished. Why has food suddenly become so central to our existence in the time of a global crisis?
Is it because we are looking to accomplish something in this time of uncertainity? Is it because food gives us a sense of security and comfort? or is it because ‘comfort food’ lights up our brain’s reward system and makes us extremely happy, athough only temporarily?
Turns out, it’s all of these. According to a 2015 article in ‘The Atlantic’, comfort food triggers in us a strong feeling of familiarity and belonging. It isn’t the food per se, but the memories it arouses. For me, banana bread reminds me of a happier time of living with my best friend in Delhi. The smell of spices in the bread reminds me of a home I once had. In these times of uncertainity, it takes me back to a time when I had the warmth of love and safety. It makes me forget the fear of not being able to see my best friend and her soon to be born baby. For those fleeting minutes before the oven timer beeps, I am full of joyful memories and my heart is calm.
The pandemic has triggered a lot of anxiety for a lot of us. We’re all on edge and we’re all looking for ways to calm our nerves, make our hearts beat slower and just breathe. When I’m cooking a big pot of stew, a shift in awareness clicks in. It’s mindfulness in action. My mind moves from a complex web of thoughts circling around fear and insecurity, and shifts to complete awareness. As I chop the vegetables, and feel the textures with my bare hands, the sense of touch is the first to be awakened. I add garlic to the oil and the strong aroma enters my nostrils, I take a deep breath to sense the flavours coming together. As I put a drop on my palm to taste it, all my senses come together. Meditation, in different ways, teaches us to be completely aware of the present. The pot of stew is my meditation.
For most of us, childhood is a memory of security and love. When I am feeling particularly low, all I want is a big bowl of piping hot ‘Rajma Chawal’. It’s a south asian dish made of red kidney beans, eaten with rice. I try to make it exactly like my mother and get it almost right sometimes. It’s classical conditioning, the food reminds me of ‘being taken care of’. It reminds me of home, digging into the food with my hands, and my mom’s gesture of love of adding some more butter to my plate. It’s a security blanket. When something as unprecendented as a global pandemic hits, we’re scared for our loved ones. It’s a feeling of helplessness. ‘I am too far away. I can’t go to them if I have to’. This feeling of desperation is extremely unsettling. All I can do sitting here, thousands of miles away from home, is to immerse myself in a bowl of rajma chawal and dive into nostalgia. When I call my mom to tell her I made rajma chawal, all she asks is, ‘did you put some butter on it?’
Food is also the most prominent aspect of all our social events. A birthday, a wedding, a funeral — all have food as a running theme. In most cultures around ther world, we come together to ‘break bread’. The joy of sharing family recipes, trying out new cusines with work mates at lunch, and turning loyal friends into guinea pigs to try your latest accomplishment ‘the Bouillabaisse’ — food brings us together. So while we aren’t able to share food on the same table, we’re doing it across screens. Everyday, we cook up a storm in our kitchens, plate it meticulously on the fancy china, and take a hashtag worthy picture.
As I scroll through all these beautiful shots, I see a post on my best friend’s instagram feed, it’s a beautifully curated shot of banana bread. I call her and sink into my couch talking about the most wonderful memories we have together and I tell her that I will see her, soon.