If you love cooking you have already made the connection in the title CULINARY and THERAPY. But, if you don’t like cooking, I hope by the end of this you might consider gastronomy a potential option for stress relief.
What is stress about?
Think about those days when you are struggling. Something negative happens. A misunderstanding. A complicated situation. An outcome you didn’t want. And you do that thing that you’re not supposed to—you think about it. A lot. Like, too much. It’s the only thing in your head. So, what to do? Well, get out of your head. Duh. But how?
Cooking. For real. I’m serious.
A key to shaking off stress is right through your kitchen door.
Reasons cooking works
Cooking involves all the senses. Smell, sound, taste, sight, and touch. It involves thought, and creativity—that part of the brain that we don’t tap into enough. It gives pleasure. It distracts. And at the end of it all you have something delicious to eat. If your stress were nothing more than a hangry episode, you can soothe your ache with supper. If it is more than just a grumpy tummy perhaps stimulating all the senses is a great diversion.
The physicality of preparing food and eating food (unless you’re a chef) is much different than a lot of jobs. Feeling the smooth skin of a tomato, fingering the pleats of lettuce, handling the course contours of a pineapple, running your hands in cold water, warm water, grabbing handfuls of herbs, mixing dough with your hands. It’s all so tactile. The mere action of chopping, crunching, tearing could release some basic frustration. You want to slap the idiot who threw you under the bus at work? Well go kneed that dough. Slap it! I dare you. You’ll feel better. Take that Chad, you dough head!
Let’s give Mother Nature a hand for the beauty she put in our bounty. 90% of food is so gorgeous. There are biological reasons outside of pure visual pleasure that everything is so pretty but the visual appealing is an added bonus. I was chopping carrots today for stew and I was so impressed with the intensity of the color. Generally, most produce is so visually stimulating in color and form that it can literally be distracting if you lose yourself in the prettiness of it all. Let me explain. You’re thinking about your crap day and your inward eye is seeing that stack of files you need to get through, but, as you prep your meal your eyes send a signal to your brain. The message (if you’re truly looking) is an ‘ooh-ahhh-wow’ of beauty. There’s a reason historic still life paintings are full of arrangements of food. Your brain processes what you have in front of you. “Hey their gorgeous, bet you want to add some bright red pepper into that salad.” Or “Would you look at that sexy hot pink streak that beet has left in your sour cream. Hawt!” Your eye is drawn out and you’re looking at the bouquet of food before you. We are visual beasts. We can’t help being distracted by what we see. So, really look while you cook.
Aromas are so powerful that they can stop you in your tracks. My friend Tracy and I were exploring a small town in south east Saskatchewan. Someone suggested we check out the used book store. We walked in expecting to smell–you know—musty old books but we stopped statue still in the doorway. Donuts. Not the faintest smell of book must. “Where’s the donut shop?” I asked. “Next door” said the woman behind the counter. “Thanks.” We turned on our heels and headed next door purchasing a half dozen of the most delicious donuts to snack on after our re-visit to the book store. Have you ever driven by KFC. You don’t even like KFC but damn that smell makes you salivate every time. It triggers, and hard!
So now you’re in your kitchen, and as you sizzle up some food and that aroma floats up into your head. You were thinking about that bitch Clara who is so bad with time management that you have to pick up her slack but then your brain smells what your cooking and says “Hey girl, smell that? It’s garlic in olive oil. Mm-hm. I bet you want to sprinkle some oregano flakes on that don’t you.” And for a little while you stop thinking of Clara and you’re thinking about what to add to the aioli.
Meal prep sound is a little more subtle. It’s the snap or tap and sloop and scrap of the process. Maybe it’s the whir of a food processor or a blender. The ding of your oven letting you know the temperature is set or the blub-blub-blub of liquid boiling. It’s basic but you don’t live in silence. Even these subtle sounds can fill a space. In my childhood my good Greek Ma would make homemade French fries. She’d fill a pot with oil and once it was hot enough she’d drop handfuls of rough cut potatoes into the blistering liquid. The sound did, does and will forever sound like an audience clapping. I’m not joking. Even when I was a kid I thought “Hm, that could seriously be on a track for the sound of people clapping.” I know that’s weird but friends on those tough days when I need a round of applause it’s in my kitchen.
This is the meat and potatoes of our culinary therapy. Pun completely intended. You’ve done all the work. And if you’ve stayed focused on the task you’ve enjoyed the process because it engaged all your senses. Your food now looks beautiful and smells delicious. It’s time to consume your stress. And you can do that how ever you like. However, friends, do your best to be fully present for it. Whether you sit at a table, or cross legged at your couch take the moments to eat it all up, enjoying the crunch or the smooth and the robust or subtle flavors, the textures and the colors. Your brain and your body will thank you—for the nutrients for the express route away from the thing that was preoccupying you.
When you’re done your belly is full and you should to some degree have negotiated all those negative feelings by replacing them with creation and with sensory stimulation.
Each of these steps in cooking are such a powerful response that our brains can’t help but be triggered. It’s more than a distraction. It’s art. Please don’t emotionally eat your way through tough times, but maybe let your senses really experience the undertaking and do your best to be fully present in your kitchen. I mean it is a gift to have food, to eat and to enjoy the process of it all.
*Credit for this idea goes to my friend Maren.