The first thing to disappear when I'm anxious is my appetite. Of all the things a depressive or anxious disorder can take away from you, a desire for food has to be the cruellest. At the time when I most need nourishment, my body physically repels itself against sustenance. Why cook up meat and three vegetables when I can have dry toast and five coffees?
There's no greater metaphor for the illness. Food fills us with forward momentum, it binds us to continued being. No food means no life. To cease meaningful eating only continues a separation from vibrancy and living.
I combat this with an almost stubborn infatuation with cooking and food. My reflexive counter-attack against my lack of appetite will be to double-down on cooking. Preferably for others and in large and complex quantities. There is no quicker way to bring me closer to life than to engage my senses, kick my kinaesthetic impulse into colourful overdrive, and comfort my tattered brain.
Thus it was that after a week of small and not-so-small disasters where I had caught myself feeling breathless more than once, I set out to make a menu. We were expecting guests. We've just moved house. The only depressing setback of the otherwise cosy abode is a kind of junkyard kitchen. No stove, oven or designated pantry. Just a series of benches and a sink set into a hallway. The menu - which would turn out to be two sizeable dinner and desserts - was as much about proving to myself that I could cook in this kitchen as it was about waging war on my anxiety.
I favoured the slow-cooker, as the weather was wet and comforting warmth was paramount. In the deserts, I also lent more towards dishes that can be prepared well ahead of time. And this one factor, as it turned out, became the most important. The reassurance of preparing a meal in the morning for the same evening was akin to a restorative meditative practice.
To have the slow-cooker bubbling away, or to return to the fridge periodically to add another layer to a sweet pie, binds you to a future. It's an act of time travel. A vague and daunting time ahead settles and clears. Here, right in front of you, in pleasing shapes and intoxicating smells, is proof that the future will be better than the present. My brain, bouncing off itself with worry, would momentarily calm in the face of this guarantee of pleasure. Don't worry - there's good times coming. That thought made me take to the relatively small tasks of preparing the food with my utmost attention. I was preparing a gift for myself and those around me - a reward at the end of the day. A promise that I wouldn't run away, wouldn't bury myself under exhaustion and claim defeat. I would get through the day, because I wanted to eat that meal.
Evening the first was ratatouille. Simple can't get simpler. Vegetables, stock and tomato in a pot. Go. I created a veritable vat of the stuff, and it supplied us with lunch the day after (on buttered toast, no less, it is divine). With litres left over, I stored small packages in the freezer for days to come, taking my binding to the future into the long-term. Comforting and life-giving vegetables are only a microwave zap away. (Although you can't go past the hypnotic pleasure of plopping a frozen chunk of something into a saucepan and seeing it melt into a meal before your eyes.)
The real victory of this one, I have to say, was the polenta. Before this meal, I've never been able to get polenta right (he says, sipping from his white wine before turning his attention to his children Sebastian and Pistachio and their ballet lessons). It came out with the texture of boiled rubber, and stuck to the top of my mouth. By virtue of the fact that the ratatouille was done and resting by the time I turned my attention to it, I was able to really come to terms with goddam polenta. I read three different sets of instructions, and practiced patience with my portable electric stove top. It turned into a pleasure - and who would have thought that the completely alien combination (at least to me) of simmering milk and chicken stock would somehow hit me in the sola plexus and urge me into calm?
Desert was a chocolate and raspberry brownie. Nothing special or difficult. I made the mixture that morning and then waited until we were sitting down to dinner to stick it into the convection oven - a very new appliance for me. It was really only to prove that we could bake in our new kitchen. And, thank Christ, we can. I consumed enough chocolate and sugar that night to make my dreams bounce into a Bowie music video, but it was completely worth it.
Also, I swear to God, if you're ever completely desperate for a quick kitchen comfort to provide a circuit breaker for a broken brain, pop cream and chocolate into a saucepan and make ganache. Watch the chocolate melt. Stir gently. Smell. Now just try to tell me everything's a disaster.
Second dinner was slow-cooker butter chicken, which was...how should I say...very white in it's interpretation of 'curry'. But then, one doesn't expect the height of Indian cuisine from the Australian Woman's Weekly, does one? Still, it was a pleasant enough chicken casserole thing. Although I regret buying packet naan and warming it up in the microwave. It inevitably tasted like it was made six months ago. Which it was. Still, it did the job. (And did I tell you Sebastian's first position's gone to pieces? Shall I top up your glass? This pinot's lovely...)
But second desert was a show-stopper. I don't think I've ever been more proud of anything in my life. Interesting that my entire self-perception around my career can be undone by a chocolate marshmallow meringue pie. But can you blame me?
Biscuit base. Simple enough. That was nine am. Ten am, return to refrigerated base and add ganache (see above cream and chocolate melting exercise). Pop into the fridge. Then, at around lunch, the real test - meringue.
I've never quite gotten the fuss of meringue. Either the making or the tasting. A truly great meringue - crispy on the outside, soft underneath - is so rare and can really only be made by people's grandmothers in small Aussie towns. Still, I was going to try. This one included a sugar syrup, to give it a marshmallow spring.
I know. A sugar syrup. Surely this was bound to go wrong.
But I took my time, read instructions carefully, and trusted my gut. And the slow, miraculous transformation of gunky egg whites into thick, glossy, delicious clouds was almost enough to render me religious. What greater proof do you need that magic exists?
It was amazing. I had made something beautiful for the world. I couldn't stop smiling. My anxiety and lack of appetite shrunk. How could I not eat this thing?
The remains of the pie are hanging out in my fridge, and I will now go and eat a piece because it's ten am on a Thursday and I'm an adult and I made it. And a little mellow is never a bad thing.