The Catharsis of Cooking
Dining out might seem like a distant memory, but restorative culinary experiences can be found in our own kitchens
It had been another one of those days — the kind where everything feels off. As I was driving home from work exhausted and frazzled, I thought there was no way I could muster the energy to make dinner. Maybe I could just pick up some takeout?
That wouldn't do. Takeout has been limited since the pandemic hit last year, and I was starting to tire of the scant selections offered by my dwindling list of “go-to” to-go restaurants.
I could see if my husband felt up for making us dinner. Though he wasn’t the principal chef in the house, he had elevated his culinary repertoire since our early days of dating, and could whip up a remarkably tasty chana masala in record time.
As I quietly enumerated all the ways I could avoid being the chef on that particular evening, I eventually came to the foregone conclusion that, if I wanted to feel truly nourished, I was going to have to do it myself.
With a background in nutrition, holistic health, and clinical herbalism, I have learned a number of ways in which food can either support or impair the body. Over the years, cooking has evolved into a sort of therapy for me. I can relate this feeling to a formal therapy session. Sometimes we dread having to relive and discuss exactly what we had hoped to move on from, only to realize in the end that it was a positive and productive experience.
Cooking can have a similar effect. Occasionally, I dread it, or feel like I just don’t have the energy after a long day. But as soon as I feel the weight of my 7” Santoku knife slicing through the multiple layers of an onion, hear the sizzle of the coconut oil in the pan, and smell the aromas of fresh herbs wafting through the air, everything changes.
In some ways, the act of eating the meal once it’s prepared is also a form of stress relief. I revel the myriad flavors of food, the textures that speak to my palate and psyche on a subliminal level. I enjoy the art of food presentation. In fact, having never been what I would consider a traditional artist, food has become a vessel for me to express myself and my creativity in new and varied ways.
But, in my view, the most therapeutic and rewarding aspect of cooking is knowing that I have total control over what I put into my food, and that I can consciously create sustenance that is not only flavorful and aesthetically pleasing, but also healthful and nourishing on both a physical and spiritual level.
My goal is to create a tasty and visually appealing meal, while also providing my body what it needs most in the way of nutrients. I am grateful to have the ability to source healthy oils for cooking, to work with fresh and local organic produce, and to grow my own culinary and medicinal herbs in my garden.
Even though I grew up in the American South, where most of our meals contained heaps of butter, fatback, and bacon, I have found ways to reinvent these dishes in a healthier light — without sacrificing flavor.
In my 20s and 30s, I spent time exploring and adhering to a vegan diet, which forced me to be creative with my cooking. I didn’t want to simply buy meat substitutes or “fake” cheese and butter; I wanted to bake a vegan chocolate torte that no one would believe was egg- and dairy-free, and I wanted it to have nutritional value to boot (mission accomplished!). After years of devising vegan meals, I had honed my cooking skills, and flexed my creative muscles, while feeling more confident than ever in the kitchen.
The most therapeutic and rewarding aspect of cooking is knowing that I have total control over what I put into my food.
In the past year, I have cooked a ton. Being home meant that I could devote more time to meal planning and preparation. There were days when I wanted something simple and straightforward, but there were also times when I spent the entire afternoon foraging wild greens for that night’s homemade pesto, gathering shiitakes from a log down by the creek to be added to a stir fry, or collecting apples and pears from the trees in my yard to make my own fermented hard cider (yes — it was delicious!).
While the pandemic has restricted us in many ways, it has also provided us with the freedom to get in touch with our culinary side, pay closer attention to ingredients, and restore ourselves through the act of conscious cooking and eating.
Dining out might have become a wistful memory — at least for the time being — but there was a newfound opportunity to indulge in a beautiful home-cooked dinner, enjoyed with my husband at our very own table. The catharsis of cooking has grown stonger over the last year, a way for me to connect more deeply with my food, health, and identity — something I will carry with me even after we return to some sense of “normalcy.”
I’ve learned the hard way that a quick stop by the local sushi bar just doesn’t ground or satisfy me in the same way as a homemade meal, no matter how good it may taste in the moment. So, here’s to a cooking revolution! May we all find the time to listen to what our bodies and souls really need.