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Essential Journal

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Essential Thoughts On: Cooking in a Time of Crisis

Our own Elliot Ramsey waxes-lyrical on how down-time in the kitchen is good for the soul, and not just the gut.

words by Elliot RAMSEY

At the best of times, the kitchen is a place to which we retreat. A haven amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life. Many, like me, look forward to those precious moments in which we are able to build something from scratch, to reach into our cupboards, grab what we have and make something out of nothing. It’s one of life’s great magic tricks.

But in times of difficulty, times like these in which we are all increasingly isolated from one another, the kitchen can become a space of solace — and what we have in our cupboards, too, can help us deal with the uncertainties and complexities of our changing world, in however small a way.

Good, home-cooked food gives us something to hold on to. It evokes within us certain memories, has the power to transport us back to a particular time or place. It grounds us, brings us together even though we may be apart, and provides us with comfort and joy during what might be otherwise challenging times.

It’s this idea of cooking as a remedy that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. For the past five weeks, holed up with my family at home, the ritual of cooking has become such an integral part of my routine, a constant amidst a sea of outside uncertainty. Long-forgotten cookbooks have been found waiting patiently at the bottom of kitchen drawers, favourite recipes have been rediscovered, and sharing food with loved ones has been at the centre of this ritual.

I should note that I’m really not someone who is known for their culinary prowess, by any stretch of the imagination. I have, for quite some time, had an ongoing and passionate love affair with beige snacks. Onion rings? Send them my way. Hash browns? God’s greatest gift to mankind. Don’t get me started on sausage rolls — we’ll be here for quite some time.

And so I’m not going to lie to you: what I’ve been rustling up has been a far cry from Michelin-rank cuisine. But no-one has taken ill from my cooking yet, which is the general yardstick by which I measure a successful meal. Plus, it’s given me something to do besides contemplate the earliest appropriate time to crack open a bottle of wine.

For the most part, these weeks of isolation have involved me rooting frantically in search of the right ingredients for the right meals, substituting this for that, discarding some questionable perishables that must by now be of significant archaeological value (a near-decade-old stir fry kit being one memorable relic). But it’s meant more to me than just putting food on the table. It’s been cooking as a form of therapy, an experience propelled by a sense of culinary nostalgia.

The period of isolation we are experiencing at the moment is tough. I know I’ve had, and will continue to have, days where I just don’t know what to do with myself in the confines of my house. But my time spent in the kitchen has been an invigorating escape from the deafening noise of the outside world. And, quite honestly, without these evenings spent flicking through cookbooks, setting off the fire alarm and living my Masterchef fantasy IRL, I would probably have lost the plot completely by now.

Granted, I am no Nigella Lawson — although, in some of my more manic moments, it’s crossed my mind that she might want to watch her back once lockdown is lifted. But this time spent disconnected from others, this new kind of life with its altered pace, has allowed me the opportunity to reconnect with recipes and their associated memories that my family and I cherish. It’s meant rifling through cupboards, throwing ingredients into a pan and waiting to see what happens. Cooking has become a morsel of hope at a time when, for so many, hope is overtaken by the anxieties of living in a changing world.

I’ve been devouring the wise words of several food writers lately, looking for a snippet or a sentence that might encapsulate the nostalgia and emotion born out of cookery. But I’ve found myself returning to the pertinent and oft-quoted words of Laurie Colwin: ‘No-one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at [their] most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.’

This, I think, perfectly sums up the value of cooking in times like these. The value of being able to tap into a kind of inheritance, in convening with the past, and finding home-cooked comfort when we need it most. While there is no question as to the difficulty and grief of the moment in which we are living, I hope that the least we can do is welcome precious moments when they find themselves at our doors.

So if anyone needs me, you know where to find me. In the kitchen, pretending I can give Nigella a run for her money. ER.