“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.”
I recently read Julia Baird’s amazing memoir, Phosphorescence, which discusses in depth on how awe could carry us through our darkest times.
In one of the chapters, she talks about the concept of “ert” — a completely made-up word by the famous marine biologist, Lisa Gershwin, who Baird interviewed for the book.
Ert, as Gershwin explains, is about “having a purpose. It’s finding meaningful employment, it’s finding a meaningful hobby that absorbs your fascination to a place where depression just can’t get in.”
It made me think back on the vocations and hobbies I’ve kept, which fill me with an utter sense of purpose. Surely, writing is at the top of the list. But perhaps, one activity that I haven’t recognized enough in my love for, is cooking.
While I don’t cook as much today as I used to, I could honestly say that cooking was one of the major things that helped me in my struggles with depression.
Prior to Covid, I used to stay in a rented house with my friends near our campus, where I would cook my own meals every day. I’m forever grateful to a few of my housemates who taught me the “cooking for absolute dummies” lessons — from turning on a stove and chopping vegetables, to using a rice cooker and making a real meal.
Even in my worst days, I valued the gentle, meditative aspect that I found in cooking. There is something inherently calming in using your own hands as you make something out of a board of raw ingredients, and in breathing in the various complementing scents.
You feel grounded in the present, as you give life to something that is of your own making, operating with elements that are within your control. No longer are you caught up in the past or the future, as your only fixation is to not scar yourself as you cut up your ingredients, or to make sure that the food isn’t overdone.
Another great aspect of cooking is in that it brings out the playfulness and curiosity in you. Especially once you’ve developed an intuition for recipes that you are used to making, you start hungering for new ways to make them even better — or, you learn how not to screw them up.
You start toying with new ingredients and new techniques. As in my case, you learn that throwing in a chili pepper and a cinnamon stick into the saucepan as you’re making your hot chocolate gives it a pleasantly heaty tinge.
And as obvious as it sounds, you also learn that no matter how adventurous you might feel, certain things like chocolate shall never in hell be mixed with savory food such as rice and meat.
And of course, it always feels rewarding and satisfying to eat a meal that you made by yourself. And if it falls short, you can always have another go at cooking it again next time from a more informed standpoint.
And if you’ve had a rough day, you can always tell yourself, “Today was full of crap, but I’m proud of myself for getting out of bed and making myself this meal.”
Living in my parents’ house, I often have to be more deliberate in carving out my own cooking time. Usually, it’s early in the morning, even if it means cooking up something as simple as an omelette on a wrap.
The kitchen is one of the places where my ert is.
On a side note, I really wonder how Gershwin came up with such a silly word.