If there is one phrase, one turn of words that is guaranteed to drive me insane, it is the well-intentioned but patronizing assurance that “there’s nothing you can do about it, so there’s no point in worrying”. Again, I know that this is meant with good intentions, as a way to help the person in question stop worrying and calm down. But in a genuinely dire or horrific situation, who among us is able to quiet our minds and turn our attention to something else? It’s possible, but not easy, and if you’re a type A control freak, damned near impossible. Situations where there is nothing I can do are exactly when I worry the most, because I am helpless to create a positive outcome. It’s why people are sent off to boil water when a woman goes into labour – gives them something to do to keep them from being underfoot and lets them think they’re helping in some way.
In the stressful situations where there is nothing I can do to achieve a positive outcome (which, by the above theory, makes me even more stressed), I cook. Lots. Mass quantities of things – restaurant quantities – just to keep my hands and mind busy, so that I might, for a short while, stop worrying. It seldom does stop the worrying completely, the issue is still there at the back of my head, throbbing like a migraine dulled by pain medicine but not completely cured. But at least I’m not just sitting there fussing. At least there’s something to show for my nervous energy.
Back in my concert production days, I’d manage my way through the lead-up to shows by cooking. In 1998, when we presented Convergence and had 500 people from all over the world coming in to Toronto for the weekend, Greg and I threw a BBQ in our backyard as a pre-festival party for the bands and selected guests. This was less of a huge gesture of hospitality and more of a way to find people to eat the mass quantities of food that I was churning out in the days before the event as I waited to see who cleared customs, whether the venues were able to meet our technical specs or if I was going to have to find a legal pyrotechnic set-up at the 11th hour (and does our insurance even cover pyrotechnics??)?
I cooked with a kitchen full of rock stars gathered around the table behind me. I stacked bowls of salads and piles of cheesecakes on top of gear boxes full of drum kits and synthesizers. When it became overwhelming I sent the lot of them, in all their goth finery, to the store with a list of items that I needed to finish dinner.
A year later, at another weekend-long music festival, we ditched the paid caterers used to fulfil the bands’ hospitality riders and I cooked band meals for 20 or 30 people each night for three night in a row. I’d have been doing it anyway – might as well put my stress cooking to good use.
These days, I’m stress cooking again. Once more I find myself with no choice but to sit and wait and accept what fate hands me, with no ability to step in and have an effect on the final outcome. Four weeks ago, Greg and I stood helplessly by and watched our 11-year-old dog collapse and die on the kitchen floor. It was fast and painless, but totally unexpected, and the shock has thrown us for a loop. Just as we started to come to terms with this, a relative was admitted to the palliative care ward in his fight against cancer. The details are being taken care of by other family members, so all we can do is sit and wait – days, maybe weeks – but there is nothing we can do, either to ease his suffering or help put his affairs in order. All we can do is wait.
So to fill the time, I cook. Big pots of soup, three different kinds today. Packed into containers and into the freezer, a wall of beets, curried parsnips, corn chowder, built solid and frozen to keep the bad things at bay and comfort us in our times of sorrow. Quick and easy, but also familiar and soothing, meals to have ready when the other relatives arrive and need sustenance to deal with their long journey and their grief.
Christmas cookies, tray after tray, mocking in their festive cheerfulness, but life goes on, traditions continue, even with the aching gaps once filled by those we love and have lost. This is what we really mean by the term “comfort food” – the things with fond memories attached that ease our emotional distress by reminding us that, as much as things change, they stay the same. It’s maybe not such a great idea to fill an emotional void with food, but in times of stress, eating – and cooking – might be the only thing that keeps us on an even keel.
At the end of the day, after the soup has been packed away, the dishes washed, the cookies decorated and frozen for gift baskets, the stress is still there. It comes flooding back; in good times, as a mental checklist of things that must be done, or excitement at the coming event; but in bad times as a reverberating sense of loss. An aching back, sore feet, a new callous or a small burn from some splattering soup distract for a bit longer. Maybe there’s some acceptance of the situation in the waves of exhaustion, or just some thankfulness at having made it through a few hours with something to show for it. The mind still races – what can I cook tomorrow? A shopping list forms, a game of mental Tetris at the calculations of how many more batches of cookies will fit in an already-full freezer, or whether any of the soon to be visiting relatives are vegetarian.
Wait. Worry. Cook. Ad infinitum.