8th November 2020
Words by Sydney Flau · Artwork by Alex Smyth
In a time of so much uncertainty, it was a relief to be able to take care of others and, for the first time, to take an active role in taking care of myself, too
At the beginning of the pandemic I toggled between different short-term obsessions. My brain rejected the idea of idleness, which I equated with feeling trapped. I became a devoted YouTube yogi for two whole weeks despite my limited upper-body strength and general disdain for being told what to do. Every morning I would unfurl my yoga mat on the hardwood floor and attempt to follow along, my thoughts suspended for fifteen blissful minutes. I liked the way it felt when I relinquished control and allowed someone else to guide my movements. But holding on to that feeling was impossible: Awareness always settled in eventually, like its own kind of fog. I knew where I was, but also where I would have preferred to be.
A few weeks later, while cleaning up my computer, I came across a New York Times article I had saved months prior. In the optimistic, early days of January I had perused the Internet for new year’s resolutions, looking for inspiration, and had taken a few screenshots of ideas that seemed promising, while steadfastly ignoring weight loss tips, and tricks to cut down on screen-time.
The idea that stood out the most was one woman’s aspiration to re-discover the joys of food. She lamented that for years food had been nothing more than fuel, something she could put inside her body in order to continue working. After years of battling an eating disorder, I approached meal time in a similar way. Eating was a chore to me, something to be dutifully checked off a list. The only way I could comfortably consume food was to become distant from the act of eating, allowing my mind to drift in and out of my body as I chewed. I couldn’t take things like color, texture or taste into consideration. Every meal was sectioned off into an even amount of bites, punctuated by sips of water.
This all came to a head during the pandemic, when I was subjected to a near-constant stream of baking content on every social media platform. Like its Animal Crossing predecessor, baking bread had become the Internet’s newest obsession. I viewed all of the posts with a kind of quiet jealousy, but wrote off the trend entirely. My relationship with food had always been complicated, even as a kid. But the article about rediscovering the joys of food had planted a seed and I wondered if I should start cooking and make good on my resolution. The pandemic had shut normal life down, and created the time and space for me to reflect on a disorder that has challenged me for most of my life.
Over the next few months, I made a number of recipes, some good and some bad. I unearthed the old 3x5 index cards my grandmother wrote hers on, a messy scrawl of detailed instruction, and attempted to recreate what I could. As I mixed together the filling for her famous lasagna or stuffed shells with ricotta, I felt an undeniable sense of connectedness to her and to the day itself. I tried to immerse myself fully in the process of cooking, to think beyond calories or the mess I was making in the kitchen. Over time it became surprisingly easy to do. Cooking demanded both presence and attentiveness. I couldn’t leave the moment I was in for the dissociative fugue state I usually went into in the presence of food, and there was no time for me to measure caloric intake. Something was always on the cusp of boiling over or burning, and every step in a recipe presented a new and exciting challenge that seemed to say: Don’t leave just yet, stay with me. On Sundays I’d cook a roast or let big pots of sauce simmer on the stove all day, a necessity during the gloomy June evenings that Southern California is so famous for. My house was brightened by the scent of herbs and vegetables. They were a warm reminder of what was to come. For the first time ever, I found myself looking forward to eating.
What I didn’t realize at first was how much satisfaction I derived from feeding others, too. What had started as a purely selfish hobby, born out of a need for distraction, had quickly evolved into something else entirely. Every night I would plate meals for my family, carefully spooning sauce over homemade pasta, and I would become better for it. There was something healing about the delicate arranging of things, especially if it was done for someone else. In a time of so much uncertainty, it was a relief to be able to take care of others and, for the first time, to take an active role in taking care of myself, too.
On Monday night I made a risotto for a friend. Stirring it constantly, I added more stock to the rice, watching it cook while she told me about her weekend. After the stock had absorbed and the mixture thickened, we brought our plates to the table and I waited nervously for her to try it, my eyes fixed on my lap. Sometimes it’s a tentative thing, cooking for someone else, someone new. I could never quite get used to it, the vulnerability of putting my relationship with food on display after having spent so many years trying to conceal it. After the first forkful, she made a face, her lips pressed together into a smile. She loved it.
There is so much contained in the act of cooking a meal for someone you love. One night during quarantine I tried to explain this to my sister, the half-baked theory I have about how it’s the sixth love language. “But isn’t cooking just an act of service?” She asked me. “Or a gift you’re giving?” And the answer is yes, of course. It is both of those things but more, too.
Here, I had managed to do exactly what that woman in the New York Times had so earnestly written about all those months ago: I had re-discovered the simple joy of eating, and of sharing that joy with others. Cooking has not fixed me or suddenly undone the years of disordered thinking my brain has been subjected to, but it has shifted my perspective. I am now able to experience what I was once blind to. By staying in the moment I can feel someone else’s knee bump against my own underneath the table, or participate in the steady hum of conversation that rises above us all. I notice, too, how much better food tastes when you’re sitting next to someone else, with all the time in the world.
I try to take it all in: the sound of forks scraping against empty plates, the way the trees look outside my friend’s dining-room window. Fall is just around the corner. But for now we’re here. Full, I think, and happy, too.
Sydney Flau is a government worker, nervous cook and writer currently living in California. When not bugging her friends to watch something they’ve never heard of, she’s ranting about politics on her Instagram @sydneyflau or spending too much time on a recipe.
Alex 小檜山 Smyth is an illustrator and media-maker originally from California. She currently resides in Vancouver, Canada and you can find her work @guch_world or at www.alex-smyth.com