Cooking For Myself Helped Heal Me After A Trauma

Everyone is cooking now, it seems. Our collective anxiety has us all standing over pots and peering into ovens while we wait for something to boil or bake. I understand why. While I’ve never lived through a pandemic before, four years ago something happened that similarly put my life into lockdown. I was sexually assaulted and overnight I felt like I’d forgotten how life was before. I collapsed in on myself, plans in my calendar were cancelled, I felt like I couldn’t be near family or friends. I felt an overwhelming grief that, without wanting it, the narrative of my life had been altered. Shame, or something like it, made me feel like I was walking around with a weight on my chest, long after the bruises had healed. 
The constant nightmares and the ongoing awkwardness of being forced to accept a new reality in what felt like an instant made me dread every day. In the few weeks after it happened, as I slowly adjusted to this new version of life, I came to understand that I had to learn how to live with what had happened, rather than letting it take more of my life from me. The feeling of loss after an assault is severe; you feel like your identity has been rewritten.
I was terrified that after the assault I would lose my love of cooking, which for so long had been an anchor to who I am. Cooking helped me figure out how to make myself happy. It helped me learn to live alone, far from home. Through cooking I felt like I could keep the people and places I missed close. In those weeks afterwards, I was desperate for anything that could bring me comfort. Before, cooking had been something I’d loved but didn’t think much about; soon it became an all-encompassing aspect of my life, and the only reason that I’d get out of bed. 

Spaghetti became a seven-hour lamb stew that made my kitchen smell like my grandmother's. Each meal was a milestone, every spoonful made me feel like myself again.

I’d always cooked. It started when I was a kid, stirring pancake batter while standing on a chair. This quickly became baking elaborate tiered chocolate cakes for boys (Nigella’s chocolate cake, always) and then fancy dinner parties for 30 friends. I felt confident doing it. Undaunted by complex recipes or unusual ingredients, food for me has always been a thrill. Nothing lights me up like lemons and I prefer presents that arrive on plates. Quickly, in the midst of processing this trauma, how and what I cooked became a lifeline.
Dealing with this new reality, I felt like I had to re-examine everything I knew about myself to see what had changed and what would stay the same. I lost friends – not just a few but almost all of them. I was ghosted by some who couldn’t cope with this altered version of me and experienced explosive endings with others who didn’t want something so sad connected to their own lives. With no family in this hemisphere, soon I had only myself to cook for. Dinner parties and birthday cakes became foreign things that had no place in my new life. I lived off toast mostly in that first week, unable to summon the energy to do more than butter the bread before I had to curl up on the couch again. I craved comfort, I wanted to feel things beyond the bad thing that had happened to my body. So I took control over what I could create: breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and all the good things in between.
Slowly, plain buttered toast became paper-thin slices of sweet tomato sprinkled with crunchy salt on charred bread, which quickly became slow-roasted tomatoes tossed with spaghetti. Spaghetti became a seven-hour lamb stew that made my kitchen smell like my grandmother’s, which then became a weeklong task to perfect my soda bread recipe. Each meal was a milestone, every spoonful made me feel like myself again. The only difference was who I was cooking for; instead of having others to feed, it was just me. Something special happens when you commit to cooking for yourself like you would for someone you love.
When cooking for one, you have to connect to how you’re feeling, what your body wants and needs, and then take the sensations of taste and texture and transform them into pure pleasure. I was lonely, yes, but it’s taken me a long time to understand that company doesn't cure loneliness; learn to be your own friend and feed her. Accepting this fact, along with a few years of therapy, has got me to a place where an experience that shifted my life overnight no longer controls my thoughts. In the years between then and now, I couldn’t have imagined how cooking would be so important in getting me here.

You can't overanalyse your day when you're whisking hollandaise or consider the universe while carving a chicken. Cooking creates small jobs that need doing with total concentration. Lose yourself in them. Find your favourite cookbook, pick something that thrills you and begin.

I’ve spent the last year writing a book about how cooking can bring us closer to ourselves and why the stories of who we are intertwine with how we eat. I don’t think I really realised the role it played in helping me through that time in my life until I looked back at my diaries from the time. Cooking captures your complete attention; when I’m in a kitchen there’s little room for anything else. You can’t overanalyse your day when you’re whisking hollandaise or consider the universe while carving a chicken. Cooking creates small jobs that need doing with total concentration. Lose yourself in them. Find your favourite cookbook, pick something that thrills you and begin. Cooking itself can’t heal a trauma but, for me, wanting to feed myself something that I'd put effort into making was a big step. Get excited about where your fruit and vegetables come from – someone once planted a seed that became your orange, so enjoy it! Find out what you like to eat and why. It will tell you more about yourself than you know.
Cook with confidence for everything can be rescued. Mistakes on a cake can be covered with icing and a little lemon zest lifts anything. Think about the first meal you remember eating as a child and recreate it, combine your favourite ingredients and invent something new or cook along with a friend on Zoom. Ultimately, we don't cook simply to feed ourselves; cooking gives us so much more than just a dish that delights. Times like this remind us that we can’t control where life takes us, we cannot anticipate the adventures or the highs and lows of our lives but we can plan what we’ll eat along the way.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Photo Courtesy of Bre Graham.
This is the quickest and easiest version of this classic comfort food. This makes enough sauce and meatballs for two so just freeze half if you’re eating for one. That way there’s always something nice waiting for you when you need it. 

4 pork sausages (about 400g)
800ml passata or tinned tomatoes
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp chilli flakes 
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
A sprinkle of sugar depending on your tomatoes
1 packet of spaghetti or your favourite long and twirly pasta 
Plenty of parmesan to serve
1. Squeeze the sausages out of their cases and roll into bite-size balls between the palms of your hands.
2. In a pot or a deep pan put in enough olive oil to cover the base and on a medium heat fry the fennel seeds, garlic and chilli flakes until they start smelling lovely.
3. Add the meatballs to the oil and cook until they are golden.
4. Pour in the passata and turn the heat down to a simmer.
5. Simmer on a low heat for 15 minutes until the sauce has thickened a little.
6. Taste it at this point and season with salt and pepper, add a little more chilli too if you like it hotter and a sprinkle of sugar if the tomatoes are a bit too tart.
7. Boil your spaghetti and once cooked toss it through the tomato sauce with a little olive oil. 
8. Pour yourself a glass of wine and eat immediately with lots of parmesan. 
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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