Even though I’m an anxious person, cooking for a crowd is one of my most favorite things to do. Sharing a meal with others has always been a significant pleasure in my life, and to be the person to prepare that meal, well, that’s just the goddamn best thing ever. Perhaps, this makes me feel a little closer to my mother, who played a similar(ly gendered) role in our family. Maybe it satiates my ever-present need to be nurturing (admittedly, this is likely a problematic need). Maybe it offers an easy way to receive external validation (ugh, I’m working on that). Whatever the reason, there’s nothing quite like loving my friends and family by cooking for and feeding them.
Cooking for one? Now, there’s a fucking bummer.
A couple of months ago, I was recounting my incredibly competitive and self-deprecating nature to my therapist. These go-to behaviors have served as the pinnacle of my essence for years, where concepts like “productivity” and “proactivity” and “achievement” were the only goals that mattered. I would frequently go through periods of loathing myself for not performing at my highest potential (it’s a mystery how I make that assessment of my potential – it is always suspiciously juuuuuust out of reach), which would motivate me to do better. To be better. For a long time, I believed that this rather extreme strategy of self-betterment was an act of tough love. But, really, it’s not. It makes me internalize and project anger, and provides me with a roundabout way of letting myself off the hook. If I’m my own worst critic, then I can never be hurt or impacted/bettered by the criticisms of others. This is stagnating and isolating.
In any case, this way-of-being has impacted my ability to experience pleasure in activities and hobbies. Though it seems rather obvious that I enjoy cooking, I only take pleasure in it when other people are involved. My therapist asked me whether I ever cook for myself, not just out of necessity, but for the sake of pleasure. I responded by telling him the story of how last time my husband was on tour, I ordered a large, everything pizza, and consumed the whole thing in 30 minutes. Two nights in a row. So, no. I have never really cooked for the audience of me, and I have never been able to enjoy the fruits of my labor without someone to love beside me.
It makes sense that I am less motivated to cook when I feel a little lonely. But, in my estimation, the biggest problem is that I feel like I don’t deserve my own time and energy. If cooking is an act of love (for me, it most definitely is), then to cook for myself is to love myself. And, blech, who wants to do that? It feels so uncomfortable.
So, in an act of defiance against my own norms, and despite my instinct to shotgun an 18-inch pizza every night of the week, I’m cooking for myself while my husband is gone. Sure, none of the meals so far have reached my self-imposed standards. Obviously, my brain cannot properly adjust to cooking food in smaller quantities, so I have been making way too much of each meal, even factoring in leftovers for lunch. I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m a grandmother, at heart, and therefore feel the need to make too much food in order to feed impromptu guests/loved ones, just in case. Maybe my acute vertigo has left me a little lazy or hazy.
I could go on and on about everything that has gone wrong, so far. But, I won’t. I’ll focus on the fact that this has been a strangely and slowly empowering process. I will probably always be hard on myself, but for the first time in my cooking tenure, I’m listening for and to my own joy, my own criticisms.
I cooked and ate a dish new to my repertoire, the other day: Fish in a Bag, with lemon, fennel, olives and white wine sauce. It was nice in appearance, smelled great, tasted good, and taught me about a technique that I hadn’t yet utilized. I decided that I deserved a plate that was pretty, so I worked on the presentation, a little. And, I critiqued it. Perhaps, I was a little hard on myself. I could have seasoned the fish a little more. I probably should have pre-cooked the potatoes, a little less. I accidentally forgot to buy pitted olives, so that element of the dish was annoying to eat. But, I formed my own opinions, and listened to them. To me, this is a small act of self-love, because I often won’t listen to my own thoughts when I am in the presence of brilliant and wonderful people. And, I often am surrounded by brilliant and wonderful people.
In any case, I’m pleased. Small wins are always big. And Audre Lorde reminds me why self-care is so important.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
Finally, here is Jamie Oliver’s recipe for Fish in a Bag.
Fish in a bag with lemon, fennel, olives, and white wine sauce
Recipe from Jamie Oliver (slightly modified)
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 20-25 minutes
- Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. While that’s getting ready, create a “bag” out of foil. To do this, take a large piece of aluminum foil (about 14×18 inches), and fold it half. Tightly fold the two sides adjacent to the original folded edge, and leave one side open. Jamie Oliver recommends you brush the edges with egg before you fold them in, to help with sealing, but I found that I didn’t need to do that.
- Drop the potatoes into the boiling water and cook for 5 minutes. While they are boiling, place the prepared fennel, lemon, and cherry tomatoes into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper to your liking, add a drizzle of olive oil, and mix gently but thoroughly. Separately, season the halibut fillet to your liking.
- Once the potatoes are done, drain them, and add them to the bowl of mixed vegetables. Once everything is mixed, carefully place the contents into the foil bag, place the fillet on top, and sprinkle with some fennel fronds. Add a splash of white wine, and seal the remaining edge.
- In an oven preheated at 400ºF, place the foil bag onto a baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fillet. Once cooked, place the bag on a serving plate and gently pierce to release the steam. Serve to self on a plate.
The Problematization of Authenticity Series: Musings on White Chefs and “Ethnic” Restaurants