So let's begin by setting some expectations. Firstly about what this article is NOT.
I'm NOT going to be sharing with you an announcement that I have finally mastered the culinary art of ...... (fill in the blank) and that focussing on its challenges helped me to make it through the day/week/month/eternity of these or any other difficult times. And, more specifically, I'm NOT going to be singing the praises of spending weeks perfecting the ultimate sourdough - but hats off to you if you've nailed it. I'm also NOT going to suggest that kneading bread of any kind helps to 'get out the anger/frustration/anxiety' - although I dare say it might, if you have the energy. And the muscle power. I'm definitely NOT going to suggest you turn to banana bread for comfort (baking or eating) mostly because you've almost certainly been there, done that and are squarely sick of it by now. But just in case there's still one loaf left in you, this one with the addition of chocolate chips or this one which is a bit spiced and has an actual banana on the top or these Nutella & Banana Muffins are right up there at the top of the banana bread charts!
In fact, on no level am I going to suggest that if you do X in the kitchen, then Y will happen and everything will be OK.
Difficult times = survival
This is about doing whatever you can manage to make it through the day and in my world that always means minimising the fuss, doing plenty of the familiar and embracing the 'good enough' mantra.
There's also a need for full disclosure here ...
When I first started writing this article, I had a very different plan for where I was going to take this idea. There would be talk of cooking being a key part of my armoury in difficult times; I would point out that cooking has always been my defence against the dark arts and I would ponder that it's not so much the food itself that provides me with comfort, but more the activities around it - the planning, the creating, the sharing - these are my life-line.
It's about panning for gold in the everyday
But then when I started to look more carefully at THIS difficult time; THIS horrendous, pandemic-shaped storm that we are all trying to navigate, I started to question how cooking has truly helped. And I realised this, it's not what I've cooked that's helped or even how I've cooked - the magic has been found in looking at the whole cooking piece with a fresh pair of eyes and using that perspective to shift my mood and my self-worth. Now stay with me here, because I appreciate that I might be edging precariously towards a woo-woo place that makes you a bit queasy. Don't be alarmed this is good, solid stuff that may be helpful - I promise.
Let me put it another way - for me, the golden nuggets to be found in cooking (ie the snippets of our day that keep our heads above the water level and keep us moving forwards through the swamp of daily life) don't require big, dramatic additions to my routine or fancy ingredients or a lifestyle overhaul. There may be a requirement for a few tweaks here and there but mostly it's about three simple things -
- taking a moment to see things a little differently
- appreciating that I've made it this far
- reminding myself that I'm doing great.
And here's my favourite part of all - this is open to everyone, because whether we are home alone or spending our pandemic days with a group of family or friends, we will undoubtedly need to cook at some stage (and let's use the loosest definition of 'cook' here - we are talking mixing, preparing, emptying into a bowl, heating in the microwave - everything counts as cooking) and so we all have the opportunity to find those golden nuggets and for them to (possibly) make our days a little brighter.
For most of us, our world is much smaller right now. We can only dream of adventures and travel and love and laughter and all the things that filled our old lives with joy. So instead we must pan for our golden nuggets in the day-to-day, in the humdrum and the kitchen is a delicious place to start.
And now it feels like some real-life examples are needed.
So, how has cooking helped me through difficult times?
Cooking makes me feel capable and resourceful
At a time when there are big, dark forces at play and when it's easy to fall into feeling helpless and hopeless, cooking makes me feel capable and resourceful. I can produce meals (often three per day), I can create something edible out of a weird collection of disparate vegetables at the bottom of the fridge, I can use up the random ingredients that have been lurking at the back of the cupboard for too long, I can do pasta a million ways, I can turn leftovers into endless combinations and I can make it happen without much squealing (from either me or the diners). And let's be clear, this is not about creating anything elaborate or extravagant - we are celebrating basic cooking here, just getting food on the table is the only aim.
Cooking enables me to keep me and my family well-nourished
I can take a temperature and dispense Panadol but beyond that my medical skills are limited. What I can do, however, is feed my family well, which (hopefully) might contribute towards fighting off illness. A regular supply of family size bars of Fruit & Nut Dairy Milk and a stream of Double Caramel Magnums are also important additions for a well-nourished soul.
Cooking helps me to experience a tiny bit of control in a crazy world
When loved ones have been lost, life has been cancelled, schools are closed, jobs are disappearing and money is tight, cooking is something that I know will almost always work. The cake will rise, the onions will brown, the sauce will thicken - there's a sense of calm to be found when I feel in control, even if it's momentary. And the epic fails in the kitchen are useful too - we can laugh about them, celebrate their hideousness, put them down to experience and keep moving forward.
Cooking offers a rhythm to the day, as well as some daily rituals
In difficult times, I really value a rhythm to the day - it's looser than a schedule and feels easier than a structure. Three meals a day, the odd snack in between and the ritual of a couple of cherished coffees thrown in, is perfect for me.
Cooking can encourage cooperation
There's not always harmony in the kitchen, but when I see my boys working together to create breakfast, my day is instantly improved. #1 son's specialism is avocado toast, while #2 son makes a marvellous mango smoothie. Neither has enough enthusiasm to make both, but together they pool their talents and both end up with a substantial and satisfying breakfast accompanied by a few tunes and a sprinkling of banter.
Cooking is an 'act of love'
I know for sure that cooking is an act of love for me but it truly warms my heart when I witness it in other people. It's often shorthand for something else, for example, a way of saying, 'Hey, I can see you're struggling and I know I can't help with the big stuff but shall I make you a Chocolate Mug Cake?'
Cooking makes life feel a tiny bit normal
The day-in-day-out-ness of feeding yourself or your family never stops - not even in difficult times - and it's comforting to feel the normality of cooking. Making a cheese sandwich, setting the table, opening a tin of beans - these things are still punctuating our day even in the rockiest of times.
Cooking makes me feel useful
I have more than a decade of experience making packed lunches, but for the last few months, all three children have been mostly at home so portable lunches have not been required. #1 son has been home from uni in the US and what with that pesky 9 hour time difference (think lectures starting at 11pm and running through to the early hours + swim training during the daylight hours), there was a need for much sustenance and at odd times. I couldn't make it possible for him to return to uni any faster, nor could I make his timetable any more bearable but I could have food prepared and ready in the fridge so that it was one less thing to think about. He would have loved a constant supply of Scooby Doo style monster sandwiches - I didn't manage that - but a stream of plated up leftovers from the day before, sometimes even with a smiley face on the cling film, well I think that's pretty good.
Coming together for dinner is an important focal point of the day
Whether it's around the dining table (I will admit, I'm a stickler for this) or eating alongside others over Zoom, that coming together feels important and it's key for connection and ensuring that nobody feels alone.
Cooking can fill an hour or two
Let's be blunt - there are many reasons to cook, but one of them is that it's just something to do. Baking a cake or whipping up an impromptu dessert might fill an hour or two when I've exhausted the Netflix menu and also realised that the idea of a cross-stitch project is really cool and wholesome, but the reality is that my eyesight is too rubbish to do it without wearing some kind of head-torch contraption and that truly is a step too far.
Cooking (more specifically, baking!) can bring a bit of joy to an otherwise dull day
The days all merge into one - we know that - and the appearance of some 'baked goods' (as they are affectionately known around here) has been known to bring a bit of joy to an otherwise dull day. Sometimes cake is the answer.
Cooking (or sometimes NOT cooking) is a way that I can be kind to myself
You know that feeling at the end of the week (or perhaps the end of a tough day, or maybe the end of a gruesome morning ....) when every ounce of energy and optimism in your soul has disappeared and the thought of needing to create food is destroying you? Well, these difficult times are when I need to be kind to myself - I can delegate dinner, I can defer to Deliveroo, I can declare a DIY 'find-it-in-the-fridge' dinner, I can announce that it's cake for dinner. We do what we can in difficult times and sometimes cooking dinner is a step too far.
Cooking is a way that I can make things feel a bit special
Life is difficult, everyone's a bit miserable but with minimal effort, I can at least make dinner look nice. I can serve it on decent plates and for big impact, low effort I can add a little bit of garnish. I'm an enormous fan of a garnish (chopped herbs, spring onions, a little grated cheese, a sprinkling of black pepper) and it's astonishing how something so seemingly insignificant can make such an enormous difference to its visual appeal (+ food almost certainly tastes better when it looks pretty). It feels like an act of self-love too ('you're worth it') and we all need a bit of that.
Cooking taps into some good, honest nostalgia
We may not be able to see the people we love, we perhaps can't make the trips we planned but through the food that we cook at home we can tap into some good, honest nostalgia to transport us to happier times. I will always choose one of my Nan's scones or a Chocolate Cornflake Cake adorned with Smarties...
Is cooking the answer?
Cooking has not 'solved' anything for me. It has not provided the answers to my own flavour of difficult times but it is a lens through which I can see that even when everything is falling apart around me, there is still the occasional glimpse of sunshine. And right now, I don't think any of us are expecting more than just an occasional glimpse ....
So let's keep cooking and please, please Universe, bring on that full, blinding hope-filled sunshine, in all its dazzling gorgeousness. And soon would be good.