Sometimes when you’re stressed, a comforting meal — either eaten or prepared — is the best way to relax and refocus.
By Denise Sakaki
The subject of this month’s Sense Memory is the precise reason why it’s so late in arriving to the Interwebs: STRESS. Things have been pretty busy and while I’m very thankful for the work, I haven’t had time to ponder the leisurely delights that compel our obsessive connection with what’s on our plates. Too many meetings, too many phone calls, too much…noise. Which I’m sure everyone can relate to. A whirlwind of distractions literally consume the day and I search for a way to hold onto something – anything – to just feel grounded. I find myself heading to the kitchen, taking a spoon from the drawer and unscrewing the lid to a jar of plain peanut butter. I dip the spoon in for a single swipe – no double-dipping – and put the jar away. For a precious moment, the leisurely unit of time that it takes to savor a scoop of peanut butter on a spoon, the world stops. I feel a calm breath return, and I can tackle the next thing on my list.
Type in “stress eating” into a search engine and you immediately get a page filled with eating disorder websites that strikes a dagger of shame into every time you’ve eaten ice cream straight out of the carton after a bad day. Come on, we’ve all done it. When one’s relationship with food is dysfunctional and eating becomes a compulsive act that negatively affects one’s health, yes, of course that’s a problem. Please seek the support and guidance of loved ones and medical professionals who will help you towards the road to wellness. But I’m not talking about the clinical description of stress eating. True, food can be a prison, but it can also be the thing that ultimately releases us.
I believe in the notion of emotional eating and therapeutic cooking. It sounds a lot better than Stress Eating. There’s nothing like the immediate comfort of a bowl of tomato soup and having a grilled cheese sandwich to dip and swirl into the creamy broth. The soup can come from a can. The sandwich can be (gasp) plain white bread with the cheese that comes in little cellophane-wrapped slices, which probably isn’t even cheese to begin with. But who cares, because the zen-like moment of familiarity is profound. You can build a palace of happiness around an everyday meal that evokes memories of childhood and simpler times.
While spending time in a kitchen may seem like a chore to some, for many people, cooking has curative powers. There’s a sense of process, with the measuring and preparation of ingredients. Food has a tactile quality when you’re chopping, mixing and blending things together. When you create a meal, you’re connected to it from the beginning, when it was only raw, inert materials, but you saw their potential for something grand and satisfying. All the stress and worry of the day slips away because you’ve transferred focus towards creating something. Cooking is a very centering experience, where there is little room for distraction, with the sharp knives and hot stoves to prove it.
Even more than the momentary escape of a spoonful of peanut butter, cooking is an avenue for one to fully disengage from the day, especially a bad one. In our hearts, we all want to feel productive, like our day amounted to something. To have created a meal made up of all one’s favorite ingredients and flavors, no matter how elaborate or humble, that is a personal sense of accomplishment that finishes a bad day on a good, nourishing note.
Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.