Thursday, October 06, 2016

Cooking for happiness

I have been trying to write this piece for a very long time and put into words why cooking fills a need within me. Since this article was published in the Irish Times in September I have been overwhelmed by the number of messages and emails from people telling me that they understood this feeling too. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I loved writing it. There will be so much more to follow...

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When your heart is breaking you can still find respite in cooking...

A dozen fairy cakes sit, slightly shrunken, in their wrinkled paper cases. She picks one up and cuts out a rough circle from the golden centre. Then slices it in half with the kitchen knife, its worn out white plastic handle grasped in her hand. Filling the gap with raspberry jam and lightly whipped cream, she places the cut pieces, which are now wings, back on top and hands it to me.

There” my mum says – “a butterfly cake”. I devour it quickly in one bite. The taste of the still warm soft buttery cake wraps itself around me and I remember how it felt like everything was going to be OK because all that mattered at that moment was eating it. This feeling is why I cook.

Throughout my life I have found comfort and reassurance in cooking. In college toast with melting pools of butter reminded me of who I was when I was trying so hard to be somebody else. I was fighting against myself and if you have done this you will know how tiring it can be. But I found some tiny solace cooking what I wanted even if it was only toast.

In summer we’d drive to Cork to visit my granny in those days when driving to Cork from Dublin took a long time. Walking into her warm house we were greeted by the smell of a roast chicken. There was buttered cabbage and boiled new potatoes. A steak and kidney pie simmering on the stove for hours awaiting our arrival – steam slowly rising from the top of it. Dessert was a Madeira cake which she served in thick wedges.

Then a few years ago when my dad was in intensive care I cooked my way through it. Actually I also burnt a lot of food during that time but let’s not dwell on that. When I couldn’t sleep I would get up and cook. The dishes I cooked were from my childhood – one was a chicken pie with fluffy potatoes – balls of flour my dad used to call them. When you cook you have to focus on the process itself and this is where the relief lies. When your heart is breaking and everything you eat tastes like sawdust you may still find some respite in the physical action of cooking. I used to stand in the kitchen, reciting a recipe from start to finish to myself, weighing out ingredients and lining them up in a row in front of me. Their orderliness would sooth me because it was the opposite to my jumbled thoughts. I would chop mushrooms feeling the edge of the knife slip easily through their smooth skin. Stirring vegetables in a pan my mind would start to wander and for a moment I would forget about what ever immediate worry I had.

Finally I decided to leave my office job and learn how to cook professionally. Off I went to London to become that cliché of reinventing myself. I wanted to learn how to cook. I wanted to throw myself deeply into it. I wanted to understand why and how things work in a kitchen because cooking is what has always been there for me.

There is a happiness to be found in food that may often be overlooked. If you go beyond the primal need to eat there is a joy to be celebrated in it. We are assaulted daily by headlines telling us what to eat. What makes something a ‘good’ food or a ‘bad’ food? How can anyone decide that for us? It vexes me that we are made to feel guilty about what we eat. I want to eat what I love and enjoy it. I don’t want to be told I cannot eat something because it is not a ‘clean’ food. There are so many other things I would rather spend my time doing than spiralizing carrots. For instance, the simple joy of sweating thinly chopped shallots in olive oil. Cook them gently now on a low heat until they become sweet and juicy – then pick one up between your thumb and forefinger, squeeze it and it will give way. Pop a cube of butter into a hot pan and watch as it starts to swirl and foam becoming a gold noisette colour and you catch a wave of that nutty aroma like digestive biscuits. I am not suggesting that cooking can solve all your problems. Imagine the burger that reorganises your life for you, tidies up your bills and does the ironing too. If only. I’d be making burgers all week. 

Life can be hard – be kind to yourself. When I cook I feel like I am just properly me. It is a world where we are often told that we have to try to be someone else, or we must be better at this, or we can’t do that. But when I am cooking none of this matters. Here I stand just making a mayonnaise by whisking oil and egg yolks together, then adding a little garlic to transform it into a beautiful aioli.
Or getting excited about foaming butter and all the things you can then make with it like a hollandaise, or a béarnaise, or stirring it into mashed potato.

Don’t take it too seriously. Ultimately it is only cooking. Sometimes you spend two hours recreating your mum’s butterfly cakes. Sometimes you just want a toasted cheese sandwich. Whatever you cook, please, just enjoy it. I know I will.

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