“Nothing will work unless you do.” — Maya Angelou
I’ve started cooking all my meals. For anyone who does this anyway, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it’s a huge deal to me.
I’d hear other people claim cooking to be creative or relaxing, but I’d always found it boring, laborious, tiresome, time-consuming, unrewarding and very stressful. I also railed against the cultural/societal expectations of women belonging in the kitchen (perhaps for this reason, I see that men get to brag about how much they like to cook – they don’t have the historical baggage of being chained to the stove).
In any case, there always seemed to be someone else around to provide my meals – my mother, flatmates, husband, cooks, hotel staff (for those long periods on films shoots) and, in recent years, restaurants. Any cuisine could be available for a few clicks on my phone; they debited my card so I didn’t even have to count out cash when the doorbell rang. It felt like a luxurious necessity. Especially when I had money but little time.
Now the situation has reversed: while I may not have a salary coming in for the time being, I do have (some) time. When I moved back to my Safe Place earlier this month, I shamelessly asked back for a bunch of things I had donated (or so I’d thought…) to friends – lamps, bedcovers, speakers and more. Among these items were three books by British nutritional therapist and author Amelia Freer that my bestie Ro gave back to me.
I’d become enchanted by Freer’s first book Eat.Nourish.Glow. when I’d come across it at the start of this year. And despite ridiculing people who buy cookbooks though never actually cook, I went ahead and bought her two follow-up books, which were mostly recipes. I liked her tone – her food philosophies were gentle and compassionate, her focus was on taste and flavour along with health, and she spoke of eating gracefully (whereas I ate as if it was a necessary nuisance).
As I re-read her books this time, something resonated in me. I paid attention to how she said it’s better to buy ingredients rather than meals. And to make changes slowly, step by step. And how the best way to turn your health around is to cook for yourself. I wondered: could I do this?
I considered hiring a cook to come in and prepare all my meals fresh for me. That’s what most friends and neighbours do. But with my allergies and particular tastes, I thought I’d spend most of the time fretting and giving instructions.
I also wanted to establish to myself that I’m no longer living out of a tiny suitcase as I have for much of my life. And buying a cupboard of ingredients, getting pots and pans, and loading the fridge with fresh vegetables was a big demonstration of that. Utilising a proper kitchen is the farthest thing from being on the move. It indicated I was spreading out, putting down some roots even. It felt critical to do the work myself.
I decided to follow Freer’s third book, The 10 Day Plan. It wasn’t easy. I’m allergic to fish and beans (and intolerant to pulses), making both her meal plans – one meaty-fishy, and the other vegan – difficult to follow without taking bits of each to come up with hodge-podge one for myself. I’m also the slowest person in the kitchen so for the first few days it took hours to set up each meal.
But those ten days taught me a lot. I learnt some cooking methods I hadn’t tried before (such as poaching), prepping components ahead to save time on the day, and making double quantities so that I could have the leftovers in a different way later.
My body adapted very quickly to the real food – no preservatives, nothing pre-made or processed beyond olive oil, dried spices and cacao powder. Hmm, so that’s what it means to be satiated. Each meal was substantial; I felt as if I was eating much more than usual, yet I never felt overly full, bloated or heavy.
These recipes taught me to expand my palate and discover new tastes. I always say I don’t have a sweet tooth so the thought of adding fruit to my salad never appealed to me. But I simply followed Freer’s instructions and delighted in the unexpected medley of flavours in every mouthful.
Having spent that much time and energy preparing each meal made me newly appreciate my dining experience. I didn’t switch on a film, pick up a book or even turn on a podcast, which is how I usually ate. No, after all that effort in the kitchen, I dressed the table, arranged my cutlery, kept the dessert ready in a pretty bowl, sat down in silence and really enjoyed every mouthful. Whereas I usually inhaled my food, I also finally did what my mother has spent a lifetime begging me to do: I chewed properly.
On one occasion, I even cried over my meal because the experience was so joyful. It was a roasted beetroot and vegetable soup with shredded chicken. I literally sobbed when I tasted it. Having reserved the bulk of my eye rolling for people who photographed their food, I found myself recording mine for posterity.
I hadn’t expected that the simple act of consciously preparing my meals would lead to all this. Where I felt as if I was – dare I say it – honouring my body, my senses, my values and my time.
At the same time that I started my cooking journey, I began to consult a therapist who asked me to write down my thoughts in between our sessions. She asked me to do it long hand, instead of typing.
I had spent the first half of my life writing by hand, and copiously so. I filled diary after diary, and wrote fiction and poetry. I also drew and painted, filling rows of sketchbooks. My left hand was my outlet. Even when the rest of my body was laid up, unable to move for a year (long story), my hand still captured what I was going through.
But once I bought my first laptop more than two decades ago, I stopped. I got out of my old habits swiftly. I liked having only one thing to carry when I travelled, instead of the weight and bulk of multiple notebooks and the paraphernalia of pens and pencils. I became smug about how I could type almost as fast as I think, so writing via keyboard helped me capture my thoughts and stories far more quickly than if I wrote by hand. Where once I had painstakingly learnt calligraphy for the beauty of it, I let it slide (along with the drawing and painting). Where once my handwriting brought me awards in school, it now deteriorated to become almost illegible. Writing by hand just seemed so… faffy. Such an inefficient use of my time. Like cooking.
However, if there is something I compulsively buy (after books), it’s notebooks. I simply love them. Blank, ruled, dotted – I don’t care. Thin, fat, small, huge – it doesn’t matter. I often marvel that an inanimate object can move me so much. So even though I hadn’t been writing anything substantial by hand for decades, there was certainly a remnant of some muscle memory of what a joy it used to be for me.
Getting back into writing by hand was less laborious than cooking from scratch, but not by a huge amount. As with cooking, after a point, I eased into it. And soon I began to see them bigger than small self-contained acts.
In the case of food, buying organic ingredients from a local farmers market that supports their wellbeing became as much a part of the cooking as the washing, peeling, chopping, and even the washing up afterwards.
When it came to writing, without the almost unthinking act of deleting and rewriting (for on a laptop, I edit more than I actually write), I focused on getting each line down right the first time. Moreover, for the first time in very long time, I could “hold” my words – literally. This gave it weight that brought me unexpected pleasure.
I thought back to my time in college when 35mm film was so precious that we made every frame count. When my university began a video course my final year, we (those of us in film and animation) despaired viewing their end-of-year projects – in place of film’s succinct storytelling, they created what appeared to be sprawling monstrosities, unconcerned by the cost of labour of each second.
Likewise, when I studied and then taught photography, we were still using rolls of 35mm film. Developing each can by hand and then printing each picture was an integral part of taking the actual photograph. It made us think before we clicked, and it made the process of creating the photograph, with its multiple steps and stages, an enriching one.
Now, sometimes I do things just because it’s there, or it’s convenient. When I have to actually work at it, it forces me to prune my life so that only the significant and the worthy remain to fill my days. What deserves the effort to be done well?
I’m not against technology at all, and I’m not pining for analogue days. I love that I can snap a photo and have it to on my blog for the world to see in a matter of seconds if I wanted, no darkroom required. And this indeed was what I’d hoped for for so long.
Because all my life I was always someone who did everything fast – I walked fast, talked fast, lived fast. I thought I packed more life into each day because everything was done at a frenetic speed.
I worried I would run out of time before I got to the end, so I always rushed to get to the good bits, the finale. The meal ready to be eaten in front of me. The story having been written. The photograph at the exhibition. Like wanting a magic bullet without doing the slog.
I don’t know if it’s a by-product of meditating regularly, but speed – and with it, convenient shortcuts, gaming the system, optimising every hour of my day – is no longer a symbol of success. In fact, it can be the opposite.
Of course I still want the result; trust me, I’m not chopping onions in my kitchen for the joy of it. But I’ve discovered the so-called slog not just elevates the end; the real result – the gain, the benefit, the prize – is the process. That’s where the true value lies. That’s where the gift is.
Moreover, I see that what actually makes the best use of my time is slowing down. Of getting into the minutiae of each step. The best use of time is what connects me to myself, to others, to the earth.
Bypassing the process disconnected me not just from that particular act, it disconnected me from life itself. When I would order food instead of cooking it, it was easy to neglect the act of nourishing myself. I saw food as fuel (and also as a means to stamp down my overwhelming emotions, but that’s a different story). I wasn’t considering my microbiome, or my liver, spleen, or kidneys. I didn’t think of food – or me – as part of nature, of cells feeding and growing, of blood rejuvenating and pumping, of my body being a microcosm of our planet.
Writing by hand is not just a mechanical act; I believe the hand-brain coordination can also unlock something deeper. I know it sounds preposterously grand to say this, but using my hand to write and create makes me part of the universal flow.
One last, critical, point: I’ve often taken refuge in the when/then mentality. As in: when I lose weight/finish my book/have money, then I will (whatever seems important at the time, but ultimately: be happy).
It may sound like positive goal setting, where the focus is on the “then”. But in actuality, it’s the “when” that can suck up the oxygen from my days. “When” is mythical, a moving target and potentially always out of reach, keeping me suspended in limbo. “When” is a means to punish myself: only when I accomplish x will I deserve to be loved.
We may think the story is about the end result, the happy ever after. But as far as stories go, that’s the least interesting part. I’d always be amazed at how in Indian movie theatres, the audience starts leaving the auditorium five minutes before the finale, but that’s because the ending – if the story is told well – is a foregone conclusion. The real joy is in the ride.
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” — Kurt Vonnegut
Naturally, I highly recommend Amelia Freer’s books, because she is LIFE CHANGING. (Her blog too is lovely, and she often reprints recipes from her books on it.) A few days after I completed The 10 Day Plan, with nothing in the fridge, I ordered outside food. I felt heavy, bloated, anxious and unable to get restful sleep (a startling reminder that this was how I used to live all the time). The next morning, I scurried over to her second book Cook.Nourish.Glow. to plot out a week’s worth of recipes (something the planner in me finds comforting to have in hand). I’m now braver with experimenting, adapting and switching ingredients around, depending on what’s available locally and in season. Love!
I used to buy Moleskine notebooks until I discovered Leuchtturm1917. They’re similar in quality and attributes (non-bleeding pages, pocket at the back) but I prefer that the Luechtturm1917 come in a proper A5 size, whereas Moleskine is narrower and taller. You can tell they’re German designed by how impeccably they’re organised with two ribbon bookmarks, and numbered pages if you want to index them. Because they’re not as ubiquitous, it feels really special to come across rows of them in a stationery shop. The colours are delectable too; I have them in navy, orange and red, and am eyeing the magenta and turquoise.
Having spent a career winning applause for the results of his talents, a French chef wants to focus on the joy of creating again instead of the awards, and asks to have his three Michelin stars removed. Read about it here in the Guardian.
Take it easy!