How Cooking Casseroles Helps Me Conquer The Darkness

By Ashley Holstrom

When I moved out of my parents’ house, my mom went through her kitchen cabinets and gave me all the duplicate spatulas and spoons and cups she’d forgotten were there. She dug out my great-grandmother’s casserole dishes, complete with little tomatoes and peppers and Italian phrases printed on the sides, and passed them on to me.

These pans have been the sole carriers of my depression casseroling.

Baking is too hard. So many things can go wrong. With casseroles, nothing can go wrong. Unless you burn it. Don’t do that.

Casseroles speak to my soul. They’re pretty damn easy. Sauté some stuff, throw whatever you want in a pan, sprinkle with an entire bag of shredded cheese (even if, and especially if, the recipe calls for only half of the bag), pop in the oven, and voila! You have supplied food for yourself for at least three days.

A part of me always considers that maybe buying all these ingredients and spending a morning preparing them isn’t worth it. Drive-thrus are cheaper and quicker! No preparing necessary. No enjoying necessary.

But that’s not the point.

The point is turning off the darkness in my head for an hour while I focus on not screwing up this one thing that is so simple, but also so complicated.

A few years ago, Jeanne Whalen wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the use of cooking as therapy for patients with depression and anxiety; they take cooking classes to soothe stress by focusing on following a recipe. This is brilliant. Cooking is a type of therapy called behavioral activation, Whalen says. “The goal is to alleviate depression by boosting positive activity, increasing goal-oriented behavior and curbing procrastination and passivity.”

The writer talks to bunches of people who have turned to the kitchen as a form of therapy, and they all love it. Talk therapy does wonders, of course, but adding behavioral therapy to the mix is the cherry on top. (Or the cheese on top, as it were.)

Meatball Sub Magic

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Slice some bread (French? Italian? Those exotic-looking loaves of bread that stick out of paper bags in the bakery section at the store. Baguettes? Who really knows the difference between these things? Aside from chefs. Hi, chefs.) Cut said bread into one-inch pieces and put them in the bottom of your pan. Mix a brick of cream cheese, a cup of mayo, a tablespoon of Italian seasoning, and spread that on top of the bread. Stir in a jar of pasta sauce with a bag of frozen meatballs — put all that into the pan, then sprinkle with cheese. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until the cheese is golden brown. Eat this in small servings so you can eat it for more than two days. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you.

Linda Wasmer Andrews at Psychology Today puts this quiet pleasure quite succinctly: “Cooking is meditation with the promise of a good meal afterward.”

Cooking is also a reminder of how small we are in the world; it is a reassurance that we, and this crushing feeling, are not everything. Andrews talks to a therapist who says to be mindful of what you’re doing, what it sounds like, what it smells like, and how the food got to be in your kitchen in the first place. It was planted, it was grown, it was collected, it was cleaned, it was packaged, it was shipped to your grocery store. A giant process went into getting it to you.

Appreciate it for being here. Appreciate it for helping you.

Cheesy Potatoes

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Gather up the goods: Sour cream, cheddar cheese, ranch dressing mix, bacon bits, frozen hash browns. Mix everything except the hash browns in the biggest bowl you have, then add the hash browns. Stir carefully, because this stuff is messy. Spread into a casserole pan and bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, until the top is crispy.

Cooking beyond boxed dinners was never a big part of my life. I thought the essentials for being an adult in a kitchen were silverware, plates, bowls, and baking sheets for making frozen chicken nuggets. Then I had a roommate who got things like potato keepers and immersion blenders for Christmas. She also had multiple garlic presser thingies. How wild is that?

She wore off on me. Food became less about fuel and more about enjoyment. I suddenly understood why people love cooking. Why they love flipping through recipe books, scrolling through Pinterest, always on the hunt for the perfect dish to attempt. Why they watch the Food Network in awe of the magic these chefs can create with tuna and cinnamon and wilted lettuce.

I never wanted to cook because, as a single lady, it seemed silly to make a pan of food for myself that my mother would make to feed four people. But this is the best way I know to take care of myself. In cooking, I ensure that I have sustenance for two or three days.

Otherwise, my diet is coffee and crackers. And ice cream.

Summer Veggie Explosion

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Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil. Chop up squash, tomato, zucchini into thin slices. Put oil/onion/garlic mixture in bottom of pan. Toss in veggies (The recipe says to put the slices in vertically, alternating veggies, but that is a lot of extra work. Do what you can). Add layer of mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake, covered with foil, for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Add as much cheese as your feelings require, and bake uncovered for another 10–15 minutes until the cheese is to your desired crispiness.

It’s hard. It’s hard to get out of bed and put on a bra and make a list and go to the store and weave through the aisles and say sorry to dozens of other humans when all I want to do is sleep.

But I do it anyway.

I come home, haul all the bags up in one trip, chase my cat as he inevitably runs into the hallway, unpack everything, and get cooking.

Casseroles. Comfort foods. I am certain none of them are healthy. But the afternoons I spend sizzling and chopping make things better. And the satisfaction of having my apartment smell delicious, thanks entirely to my own hands, is something I have never known until now.

I go through the rest of the day feeling accomplished. Because I did accomplish something. I conquered the darkness, if only for an afternoon. It sounds small, but it is enough.

*Note: Recipes with actual amounts and directions can be found here, here, and here.

Illustrations by Katie Tandy

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