On the day Max broke my heart, I baked a cake. While I greased and lined the spring-form cake pan I thought to myself that there had never really been a time in my life that I had sensed such an overwhelming feeling of inevitability. When I melted the chocolate I knew that we would never be together again. Mixing the dry ingredients brought me to the idea that the relationship ending seemed unavoidable, and no matter what lengths I would go to, there was nothing I could or should do to change things. I folded through all of the ingredients together and poured them into the pan, then put it in the oven. When I called my Mum, she cried.
‘Don’t ever talk to him again,’ she said. ‘He can’t do that to you, you’re my baby girl. I love you sweetheart, don’t ever forget that. I’m here for you.’
I sat down on the cold tiles, the smooth texture bringing with it a tight feeling behind my ribs that I don’t think I had ever felt before. And for the two hours it took for the cake to cook and for me to eat the whole thing, I cried.
For a week I became fascinated with recipes and developed a new system to fill out the days. I would read a new recipe, follow it, look at Max’s Facebook profile, cry in the shower, throw out the food, and sleep. The days ran into each other and I forgot the names of the weekdays. I wore pyjamas when I wasn’t wearing my bathrobe. I didn’t go outside or open the blinds. I ate little of the food I cooked before I threw it out, preferring to drink the stores of wine I had been saving since my last birthday. After four days I weighed myself and found I had lost three kilos. This new information didn’t please or displease me.
The showers were very distinct markers throughout the day. Every time I went in to the shower I turned it on then laid down on the floor and looked directly up at the water falling on my face. I don’t recall the temperature of the water, but I do remember its weight. It felt heavy, like each droplet was a harsh truth that I didn’t want to face. I wanted to do anything but recall Max with great flowery fondness and yearn for a time in which I was increasingly more naive than I am now, but that is what I did.
At one point, I think it was in the afternoon, I had a lucid dream in which I remembered making cupcakes with my sisters. The smell of cocoa powder was dusted across my room and it became warmer. When I opened my eyes, I thought perhaps I was lying on the floor of the family kitchen. The walls were the same colour, and the light filtered in through the blinds, which reminded me of the patterns I used to see on the marble bench top, a kaleidoscope of real and imagined shapes. There was no transition between sleep and stumbling towards the kitchen, the light making me want to retreat back under the covers shrieking “It burns us!” but I persevered for culinary’s sake. As I pulled out ingredients I felt curiously numb. A lot of different colours and smells from childhood played across my mind.
It reminded me of being a lot younger than I am now, sitting at the kitchen counter with my face in my hands, watching Mum cook. It reminded me of being allowed to use the juicer; the acidity of the fruit stinging my hands and the sticky liquid dribbling from my hands to my elbows. It reminded me of breaking eggs into a bowl and picking out the bits of shell with my fingers, breaking the yolks as I tried to push the shards to the side of the bowl. It reminded me of licking chocolate off a wooden spoon, and Mum smiling as I wiped a trail of mixture off my chin.
Measuring and mixing felt detached, like I couldn’t feel my hands going through the motions; I could only see them being done. I could smell everything combine together to create something new. It made me smile. And once I pulled the cupcakes out of the oven, I saw I had done something constructive that also tasted good. Plus I didn’t want to break anything, which was a welcome change. Channelling energy away from breaking possessions seemed to be a rehabilitative outlet. I frosted them, and arranged them on a plate before placing them on the kitchen table.
A flicker of Max and I eating breakfast passed across the back of my eyelids. So I started on the next batch of cupcakes, whilst planning the ones that would follow. Vanilla. Chocolate. Blueberry. Lemon zest. Several flavours later I counted the multi-coloured assortment littering the table and surrounding bench-tops. Seventy two cupcakes later I was definitely out of dry ingredients. When my roommate walked into the room it must have been an interesting scenario.
‘Wow, what’s all this for?’ she asked once she had walked in.
‘Nothing. Just felt like cooking.’
‘You can have as many as you like.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yeah. Have a cupcake.’
She sat at the table and picked up a chocolate. I sat next to her and picked up a vanilla, and we ate them together in silence.
Lucy Saunders, author of three cookbooks on beer and food and editor of Beercook.com, uses cooking to mend her broken heart. ‘I’ve cooked my way through heartbreak several times,’ she explains. ‘You can start from scratch and have something fresh and new. It’s creativity with some measure of pleasure and you can enjoy the results right away. (Somovar, 1). Over the following weeks it became a lot harder for me to concentrate on self-pity when I was trying to follow a recipe so precisely. It was very involved, this new procedure, and was all I could concentrate on. I had cooked a lot before I met Max, but from that point he took over culinary duties, and cooked for me almost every day. On some occasions I would cook, though usually I took on the role of assistant or eager spectator. I didn’t want to be a spectator any more. Especially to the scenario of Max and the unknown woman that played over in my head like a carousel of disappointment.
For cooking, ‘One needs a good range of movements in the upper body (shoulders, neck, fingers, elbows and wrists); perfect overall balance, sensory awareness (dealing with dangerous objects and situations) as well as sufficient muscle strength in the superior limbs (for mixing, lifting, chopping, pounding, whisking, and cutting). (Mayland, 1). This concept was explored thoroughly after I saw Max being tagged on Facebook; at a café with the unknown woman. Cooking was the one form of physical activity I had performed in weeks, and venting frustration whilst making bread was one idea that proved to be very remedial. It was rather comforting knowing that punching a pile of dough was a socially acceptable way of dealing with my current situation. When my roommate walked into the kitchen to find me, tear-streaked and assaulting a blob of uncooked bread, she walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. Her eyes were wide and watery.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Yeah.’ I fiddled with a piece of dough that was stuck to my thumb.
‘Just making bread.’
‘Do you need anything?’
She rubbed my back before leaving. I went back to punching the dough. It needed to be kneaded, and since I was no longer needed, I was more than willing to oblige.
Over the following weeks I started to cook with increasing ferocity, branching out away from baked goods into hearty dinners. Angel hair pasta with chilli and lemon. Eggplant rolls dripping with cheese. Roast turkey with potato gratin and vegetables. Mushroom risotto. Beef stroganoff and homemade garlic bread. A lamb curry that took four hours to tenderise, making me glance in the oven and at my phone for the duration of the cooking, wondering if he would text me to say that he missed me. I had memorised his number. I typed it into my phone and deleted it on repetition. Check oven, check phone. Check oven, check phone. I was soon running out of room in the fridge to place all of my culinary creations, and my phone, gripped tightly in my hand, was beginning to make my palm sweaty. With my heart in my throat, I knocked on my roommate’s door.
‘Would you like to have dinner with me?’
‘Yes.’ She smiled and her eyes crinkled up at the corners. ‘That would be lovely.’
We ate, making a small dent in the assortment I had littered throughout the kitchen and in the fridge and freezer. I could often feel her eyes on me. Her head tilted down but she was looking at me through her eyelashes.
‘Would you like to come to the movies with me and my friends tomorrow night?’
‘Thanks, but that’s ok.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Ok. Let me know if you change your mind though, you’re more than welcome to come.’
The following night I stood in the bathroom with my towel wrapped around me, looking in the mirror. I stared at my eyes reflecting back at me. I thought it was odd, how little you notice about yourself, when you spend so much time looking at another person. A knock on the door made me jump, my heart skittering around between my ribs.
‘Hey Erin, we’re leaving now, are you sure you don’t want to come?’
‘Yeah, thanks, I’m not ready or anything. Have fun.’
‘Alright. You too.’
I turned on the water, and when the front door slammed, I dropped my towel and stepped under the stream. Maybe I should cook something with cabbage, I thought, before I sat on the tile. It’s probably going to go off soon. When I closed my eyes, I was standing in Max’s kitchen doing dishes, and his arms wrapped around my waist as I stood at the sink. When I opened them, I felt a cool numbness appear between my eyes and spread down my neck and towards my limbs, and I cried.
A few days later I put reason out of my mind and sent Max a text message. I was surprised when he replied, saying we should spend some time together the following day. I wanted to know why things had gone the way they did. I woke up in the morning for once, opened my blinds, and spent most of the day sitting on the edges of seats and jigging one or both legs. An hour before I was supposed to leave, Max sent me a text to say that he was too busy, and cancelled. I sat down at my desk, my laptop screen taken up by his Facebook. My cheeks reddened. I took off my glasses and put my hands over my eyes. My face was hot, and my mouth became dry. I’m not sure how long I sat there, hiding my face, but when I opened my eyes the light was startling and crystalising. He would never change, and I would always be left waiting. I left my room and knocked on my roommate’s door. She opened it with a smile on her face and puzzlement in her eyes.
‘Do you want to have dinner with me?’ I said.
‘Sure, what are you cooking? Need help?’
‘Actually, I was thinking we could go out somewhere to eat.’
‘That sounds great.’
The next day, I didn’t cook. I didn’t have a reason to. I sat on the bench top, ad swung my legs like I used to when I was in the kitchen watching Mum cook. I breathed in as deep as I could, my chest lifted upwards, and I smiled.
The kitchen, I’ve realised, is a special place for expressing not only culinary talent, but basic gut feelings. And it can be, too, a place where we explore ourselves, our problems, and potential solutions that will improve not only what’s going on in the oven, but in our daily lives. The main challenge is to stay present. Spending time in your kitchen could be an utterly beneficial form of physical and occupational therapy. Since cooking is something one sometimes must do anyway, it could be done to maximum advantage. It’s possible to cook one’s way out of depression, and I know it is; because I’ve done it.
Heartbreak is not about nostalgia anymore. Time spent in nostalgic longing may not always behave in ways we might wish. My history of cooking largely involved the desire to link myself to other people, as some sort of gesture, some sort of connection on an emotional level. That desire is still a large part of me. I cook for my family and friends because I care about them. Though now I’ve also found a new desire. It goes against my previous desire to cook (indeed, to exist) exclusively for others. I have a desire to cook for myself. A solitary dinner does not mean I am alone.
Creek, Jennifer Occupational Therapy and Mental Health 2nd Edition, 1997. New York: Churchill, 1997
Mayland, Ros. ‘Rosa’s Musings: How Lemon Curd Saved My Life, or Cooking as Therapy’ Theramblingpicture.com. Rosa Mayland. Web. Jan 31. 2012
Parrish, Louis Cooking As Therapy – How to Keep Your Soufflé Up and Your Depression Quotient Down. California: Hearst Corporation, 1975
Somovar, Anna ‘Cooking is Therapy: Making Meals Helps to Reduce Stress, Heal a Broken Heart, Among Other Benefits’ Culinaryschools-california.blogspot.com.au School California. Web. 28 August 2012