Ivy Massey on the creativity and liberation that can be found in cooking
When I was 18, I had therapy every week. My therapist was a grey-haired man in his mid-fifties with shelves full of books on post-colonialist theory and souvenirs from his extensive travels in Africa. My parents were paying him, on the advice of my GP, as an emergency measure to get me to revise for my upcoming exams. I had barely got out of bed for several weeks and was irritable and rude, very different from my usual behaviour. I’d been offered anti-depressants but refused them, feeling with ill-advised determination that I’d rather fail with an unaltered brain than succeed on medication. This therapist, then, with his stories about his days as part of an anarchist collective and preference for art over exams, was not the right person to get me out of the depressive hole I’d dug for myself in the absence of using my eating disorder as a method for controlling my work. Nevertheless, I admired his attitude – the way he valued happiness and freedom over academic or financial success was something I had never really come across in an adult before.
Most of what I remember from those sessions is not what we talked about – mainly how the circumstances of my childhood might have made me into a self-flagellating, perfectionist mess – but the oppressive heat of that summer. On the way to my sessions, my mum’s car seemed so hot, and the air so curdled and stale, that it was almost impossible to breathe. I remember only one thing cutting through this feeling for me. During a session, I found my mind wandering; instead of what various figures in my life thought about my miniature breakdown, I was thinking about lemons. I couldn’t stop thinking about their burning, sun-like scent, the life in the bright yellow of their dimpled skin, the weight of them, their stained-glass segments when they were cut open. I bought a bag of them, the biggest and most beautiful I could find, before we went home, and spent most of the journey back smelling them. They made me feel alive. I wouldn’t let my mum cook with them, and spent most of the next week drawing them, badly, trying to capture what it was about them that felt like light.
For a week, before they ended up on the rims of drinks or in salad dressings, those lemons were objects of art. For me, cooking had been nothing more than a method for controlling how many calories I consumed. By carefully measuring exactly how much of every potentially threatening ingredient I was using, I learnt to adapt recipes to make them lower in calories while looking the same as the standard version. The limits this put on me, though, meant I missed out on cooking as a creative outlet. The lemons marked the start of my appreciation of food on an aesthetic and artistic level, and of cooking as a kind of therapy for me. My boyfriend at the time was an enthusiastic cook, constantly making elaborate, exciting meals and making things like yoghurt from scratch where I would have stuck to the packaged version and its reassuringly exact nutritional information. His attitude to cooking, as an opportunity for creativity and an affordable luxury, began to rub off on me. I started experimenting, buying spices in bulk and using ingredients I could barely pronounce, let alone read the calorie counts of. I had always enjoyed the bright colours and sensory experience of cooking programmes, and had watched them obsessively when I was at my sickest. Now, I started to actually make the recipes that I had longed for and denied myself, and I began to find that cooking itself was a therapeutic experience for me.
I almost always cook alone now. Time cooking is time spent with my thoughts, listening to music or the radio. It is time that I can spend slowly and silently, without the corrosive glow of a screen. I often find it hard to give myself permission to do things that I enjoy if they have no productive value, but the necessity of feeding myself means that cooking is now something I can do without guilt. I buy the most beautiful ingredients I can afford, and take my time untangling scarlet threads of saffron or choosing which recipe to make with them. Cooking is one of the few times I feel really content, and I know that the enjoyment I take from making food has made it much easier to eat it, too. Seeing food as something beautiful, something wholesome and healing and full of love, has been one of the best things to come out of my recovery, and is probably one of the reasons I managed to recover in the first place.
I can’t always afford to cook the way I like to, and am often short of the time, energy and money to make something really exciting, but when I can, I do. I’m usually careful with money, but food is one of the few things I spend more than I need to on. I get excited just finding a new kind of garlic in Tesco, so why wouldn’t I spend £2.80 on a loaf of bread once in a while if it’s so delicious that it makes my toast every morning that week so much nicer? The recipes I enjoy making most are plant-based, with fresh ingredients and strong flavours – sometimes too strong, but always exciting. The one constant, though, is citrus. Lemons still bring me just as much joy as they did after that first therapy session, and I always feel just a little bit more alive after tasting one.