Cooking and Mental Health

I read an article about how home cooking is slowly but surely dying. What people call cooking at home is mostly reheating pre-prepared food. Home cooking, the art of putting mostly fresh ingredients together and manipulating them into a meal, is what is dying. 

In that article, the author, Epicurious editor David Tamarkin, also states that he believes at cooking at home is good for us, and probably good for our mental health. He also says that he has no evidence for his belief; he believes it, nonetheless. And the funny thing is, I do too. 

You would think that there would be some studies on how cooking at home might be linked to mental health benefits, but if you do a Google search, there is nothing on the subject. 

Really? Nothing? 

You mean when Yoda brings the young Skywalker into his tiny home on Dagobah and cooks him a hot meal replete with herbs and spices, we can’t think of similar scenes across a lifetime of home-cooked meals that  didn’t make both the cook and the eaters happier, or didn’t give the chef at least a small boost in confidence or self-esteem?

Doesn’t the act of creating something, whether it be knitting, sewing, or painting, tend to lift the mood and help quell anxiety? Why else do support groups for cancer patients often encourage participants to knit? Couldn’t cooking have a meditative quality to it, when it’s not rushed? Have you ever noticed how much tension you can release through your hands while rolling out dough, beating some eggs, or stirring a soup? 

I know I’m not the first one to think about the correlation between home cooking and mood. And I decided to dedicate a chapter in my book to it. If you buy my book someday, be sure to read that chapter with a cup of hot apple cider with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peel. 

You Don’t Have to Be a Star, Baby

If I have learned anything through the process of writing the first draft of the upcoming book, “Making Food Fun Again,” it’s  like Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. said all along: you don’t have to a be star, baby. 

When it comes to nourishing and feeding yourself, you don’t need fancy training, kitchen tools, or a degree in culinary science. You don’t need to pay attention to the latest food trends in Bon Appetite or laboriously scroll through the Instagram food accounts that have the highest number of followers. 

What you may need is a mindset shift away from what I believe the food industry has groomed us to believe: that we can’t cook good food for ourselves without a lot of their help, pre-packaged foods, chemically-inspired shortcuts, or legendary professional chefs plating it for us. 

For the longest time, I believed those very things. Eating outside my home was the treat. And I find that idea such a strange reflection, since some of the best meals I have ever had in my life were ones that were made at home with fresh ingredients and plenty of love. 

As I search for an editor, I have already been eating in such a way that the best food for me — the safest and cleanest for my medical conditions — are cooked in the safety and careful attention of my own home. I am not a professional chef, my kitchen is modest in size, and I don’t own a complete set of chef knives nor a chef’s toque. 

You don’t have to be a kitchen star. Just hungry, and curious. 

Lost in Translation

Have you ever had the experience of feeling like no matter how clear you are with your words, you aren’t being understood? 

My husband and I went to eat at a Thai restaurant while out of town. While we’ve found that it is easy to ask for no garlic or no bell peppers, it’s a bit more difficult to ask for both gluten-free AND soy free food. 

On more than one occasion, people who are not in the restaurant industry have suggested that I make a laminated card with all my food allergies, intolerances, and then get that translated into multiple languages. 

I believe too much gets lost in translation when you hand a card over to someone with that many ingredients listed. In my case, if I wrote down gluten and soy, what do you think the chances are that I would still get tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) added to my food? 

Is the solution found in avoiding all Thai restaurants? Or is it in the actual interaction, without a laminated card, going through a specific dish, and removing everything that you can’t have by specific ingredient? I prefer the latter. What about you? 

Sensitive

My internal radars go off when I am sent news articles on healthy eating that have nothing to do with me. On Social Media, I’ve done my best to try to adjust the flow of promotions and articles having to do with weight loss by going low carb, low gluten, or fasting. It might work for others, but these are not for me. 

I go off on a rant. Then I hit the laptop and keep working on my book.

Yet I admit that every so often, I see something that is so all-sorts-of-wrong, I can’t contain my response to something I wrestle with internally. I have to go off on a rant.  And so, I do. I go off on a rant, and then I hit the laptop and keep working on my book, a chapter at a time. 

I’m working on Chapter 12, and now there are only three more chapters to go before I am done with my rough draft for the book, Making Food Fun Again. I’m caught with this thought that I never want to write something that sounds like I know exactly what you should eat, especially since everyone is so different, and more obviously because I’m not writing from a place of being a nutritionist or an dietician.

And now, I find myself sensitive. Just like I imagine my future readers to be. Sensitive, moody, and eager for hope. I’m writing as fast as I can. 

Take It Or Leave It

I’m reading Susan Musgrave’s, “A Taste of Haida Gwaii,” and caught on to a motto she has quoted more than once. 

We offer you a choice. Your choice is to take it or leave it.” 

Air Canada

In a fine-dining restaurant in the Canadian Rockies, it came down to that quote as I sent the waiter back to the chef to inquire about yet one more possibility in my quest to order a three-course meal that complied to my food allergic, autoimmune protocol, medically-necessary gluten free diet. 

The answer that came back was not surprising. The chef was reticent to substitute anything, as he had painstakingly created and set the ingredients. It would be akin to asking a conductor of an original score to remove individual notes because the a particular listener did not want them included. 

Other than the gluten, dairy, and nuts, my other requests came down to a “take or leave it” approach. I could take the dish as is, and after the plate was delivered, I could eat the foods or remove what I could not eat, or I could leave it — that is, not order it at all. 

Not wanting to be trouble, I took the best of the first choice, and my husband received offers from me for everything I could not eat. 

I think people are pretty shocked to hear such a story. But there are many sides. I can imagine that a restaurant such as the one we selected for being one of the best in town attracts many out-of-town guests, some with legitimate allergies, and others with what I would call preferences rather than true intolerances that cause GI distress. If a chef were to accommodate every single request for substitutions and omissions as true allergies, it could be very challenging for his or her staff to accommodate. 

Someone like myself comes along, and I have a list so long, the waitstaff often have to make multiple trips to talk with a chef just to get a basic order, and then there’s the checking and the double checking. 

I do some checking too. I check to make sure I have my Epi Pen, that I’ve listen all my main food allergies, and that I’ve asked the right questions about sauces and any unlisted ingredients. 

Everyone seems uneasy. 

Do I know when I should take it, and when I should leave it? 

Sometimes, I only know I should have left it after the fact, when I am crying in pain at home in a bathroom, vomiting my guts out. Other times, I know in 24 -72 hours, when I’m in the hospital, my guts inflamed and my blood pressure so low I can hardly walk without assistance. 

How can food be fun again when the stance of the restaurant is “take it or leave it”? All I can say is, it was a relief to encounter so many places that were more than willing to accommodate me during my fourteen days on the road. 

And I’m also glad to be cooking in my kitchen again, even if it is just an InstantPot meal with allium free curry powder. 

Chicken, carrot, fennel, brown rice cooked in an InstantPot, with curry powder and pepper, with fresh cilantro. Hold the cilantro if you belong to the Facebook group named, “I hate cilantro.” 

Eaten

My computer ate the first chapter of my book. 

Eaten. That’s what happened to the first couple of chapters of my book on MS Word. 

To be more specific, Microsoft Word on my beloved Macbook crashed, and I lost the first chapter of the book I’m writing.  I had been warned that MS Word for OS was less stable than Pages, and prone to crashing. The lure when hearing that Word is the number one industry standard tool for online publishing fueled my compulsion to try writing in Word for Mac OS for the first time. Other than that, I’ve only ever used Word for Mac to pump out a resume, CV, or document that required it, such as a legal service. 

So now, I’m contemplating writing my book on Google Docs (auto save, never lost a document there) or on Pages, and reformating when the time comes to transfer it to an online publishing tool to push it out. 

I suppose that because I hadn’t gotten very far (just a couple of chapters worth of text, really), I am not heartbroken. A 14-day roadtrip percolates a lot of material for its own storywell of eating foibles, near misses, and triumphs. As with many losses, I can move on. 

MS Word ate my initial thoughts, but I’m sure to burp up some new ones about stinging nettles found in the forests of Haida Gwaii and the treatment of arthritis and joint inflammation. 

For now, just let me snuggle my cat for a moment. Our pets don’t solve our problems, but they sure do make it easier to take them on. 

Tales About Food On the Road

When people think about vacation and eating, I imagine they envision what I used to fantasize about: food porn that makes your mouth water long before the meal reaches the table, scents wafting in from a kitchen while you sip an Argentinian Malbec in anticipation of that medium-rare steak, the flinging of crumbs from your mouth as you bite into freshly baked slices of sourdough bread, and decadent chocolate flowing over a delicate ensemble of wafer, lavender ice cream, and ice berries.

Now, as a person with Autoimmune Disease who experiences medical crisis when the smallest of errors is committed in those same scenes, tales about food on the road read like a horror movie, cued with edge-of-seat moments and relieved sighing when danger is averted.

Was that a green onion hiding under those rice grains?
Did they use corn starch to thicken the sauce?
Is there anyone who can feed me more than berries for dessert?

The big question I’ve been trying to answer is in the title of the book I’m writing — how is food fun again for the millions of people who live a “free from” lifestyle, including scent free hygiene products and smoke-free air? If your food doesn’t look like it’s filled with unicorn sprinkles and Instagram-able ingredients (salt, fat, sugar), is it, by definition, fun?

And when you’re on the road for two weeks, as I was from August 27 to Sept 9 2018 for a vacation with my husband, is that food exciting when it isn’t presented and piled, one ingredient on top of the other, the way everyone else’s food is presented, stuck together with butter, milk, syrup, gluten, beans, or nuts? Is the point of fun food to mimic what we once could eat, such as eating gluten free cereals? Or is the point of fun food something entirely different?

Do we become less grateful when that Wagyu Alberta raised steak comes without a BBQ rub or sauce, or do we become more grateful that the flavor of that same steak comes through an extremely minimalist arrangement, missing the usual dollop of mashed potatoes, butter, or cheese?

Is the food less fun because it looks different on the plate, or more fun when that food produces a feeling of satiation and delight within the person, not just on the plate?

All I know is that when I communicated more clearly that I wasn’t interested in eating processed gluten free food, the focus of my meals were clean, simple, natural foods. And what chef, in a fine restaurant or at home, is opposed to that? None that I met. In fact, everyone seems to relax when I steer clear of anything “gluten friendly”. Instead, we know that berries, rice, and steak are gluten free. No worries there.

And when there are no worries or concerns, that’s when the fun begins.