How cooking for myself saved me when I was at my loneliest
In the rituals of food, lies comfort and revelation.
In the rituals of food, lies comfort and revelation
When I was small, I benefited from the model my parents provided. Theirs was a rarely tumultuous relationship and a very loving one.
It was compassionate, founded on humour and a zest for life. There were rocky times, but they were quickly resolved. Our family got together to sort things out.
It never occurred to me as a child that they might separate or divorce, despite the odd item flung against a wall for dramatic effect and immediate release.
Or an entire dinner service, as my mom did once, piece by piece, lobbing plates at my dad when he dared to put his face around the edge of the door.
In my own marriage, I was surprised and dismayed to find my relationship on the rocks, without any chance of rescue. This was the one that was supposed to be forever. How could this be?
There was no rancour, no specific episode of betrayal, just a great sadness at the fact that we were not cut out to be together any longer, after three years of staccato courtship and seven of marriage and child-rearing. We were lost and sore, unable to find each other or ourselves.
My then-wife and I mulled a separation for hardly a moment before electing to proceed straight to the finality of divorce. No half measures. Let’s do this thing properly!
Before I knew it I was camping in other people’s homes, losing possessions as I moved from one place to another. My young children and ex-to-be lived in the “old house” while she searched for a new permanent home.
We said we were doing it for the children, to have two happy homes instead of one miserable one, and I know that decision was brave and good and true. But so incredibly hard to do.
The biggest change of my life, like taking a sharp left and crashing into a brick wall right at the gate of heaven. A mess with casualties.
I was in shock and had to learn to look after myself. The risk of chaos and dissolution was real. How would I dignify my solo existence and claw back hope from this engulfing despair?
To my surprise and joy, I found that preparing food for myself was helping me. Eating well, despite the temptation to do otherwise, was my unlikely salvation.
Making food for myself, and not descending into a slothful roundabout of toast, peanut butter, and takeaways was the rope I held onto, the thing I used to pull myself through.
Making an elaborate meal or a simple one was a way of saying “I’m worth caring for, and I will get better.” This too shall pass.
I peeled and chopped and marinaded, I baked and fried my way out of the corner I’d found myself in. Eating well became a way to honour and accept myself, as I house-sat strange homes on my own, missing my kids like a drought misses the rain.
Their absence, and the topsy-turvy idea of limited time with them, produced a constant dull ache that sharpened into tears of confusion and pain.
At least I might then sit down to a meal, on my own, having laid the table and lit a candle and said my prayer. What a holy and precious thing that is! Like a day at the spa for the soul.
Some of my meals redefined the idea of “basic”. A supper of steamed carrots, or a bowl of mashed potato with parley and butter. Others were more extravagant.
I didn’t need to impress anyone except myself. Haemorrhaging cash post-divorce, it was good to be able to eat so simply.
Lonely and poor, I was okay, because my simple food provided strange company and a structure to my day.
Cut adrift from the people I loved, I needed something to hold me, and a routine was good. I never guessed it would be built around a stove.
The hotplates are where I find my best self, my kindness, my creativity, a healthy version of me.
The sound of chopping and tossing into a hot pan, the whirr of an oven, the aromas, the soft bubble in a pot left alone for a while, the clink of a plate and scrape of a fork – these were my company.
Immersed in this sensory world, I did not feel alone. I made a recipe to find my way home.
Now, 10 years later, my ex-wife has become my temporary housemate. We’re still doing it for the kids, who are teenagers now.
But this time, providing one happy home, instead of two. And just as my parents modelled their relationship to me, we can do something similar for our children, even as we are no longer a couple.
It’s my week to cook. Last night I made gnocchi, baking potatoes in the afternoon, letting them cool, scraping out their flesh to mash with egg yolks, a handful of parmesan, and just enough flour to roll them into thick cables.
My daughter grabbed a fork and began pressing them into shape. My son walked through with his skateboard – “Aaah, gnocchi! Yum!”
Their mom voiced her praise and gratitude for the meal. We sat down to eat, sharing life through the ritual of food, before washing up, tidying the kitchen, and going our separate ways.