In the past year and a half, I’ve discovered a new passion: Cooking. (And baking.) Believe me, I’m more surprised by this development than anyone else. Growing up, my mother would watch Julia Child or Justin Wilson and I’d leave the room, bored out of my mind. Later, I became the Queen of Convenience Food. I believed it was faster and easier, not to mention less gross. (The idea of putting my hands in a chicken never seemed like a great idea to me.)
And then… Life changed. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more aware of how nutrition affects my overall health. I’m not twenty anymore and I can’t get away with eating crap like I used to. It both piles on the pounds and makes me feel miserable.
I also lost (or got over) a lot of my excuses for not cooking. Once I started freelancing, I had more time. Not tons of time, mind you, because I still do have to work, but the lack of a commute did free up some hours. The gross-out factor? Well, I still don’t love handling raw meat, but it’s not as bad as I expected. I also got over my irrational fear that I’d never get it cooked properly, resulting in food poisoning for all.
I also got over the thought that somehow cooking would be too expensive or difficult. Starting with easy recipes and then moving up to more complex things took away a lot of the fear. I kept reminding myself that if I can write a novel, combining ten ingredients in a pan should not be beyond me. And, sure, I’ve spent some money on better tools, but it’s been gradual. I didn’t run out and buy all new pans, knives, and appliances on the first day. I’ve gradually bought a few things as I’ve identified a need. And the food isn’t expensive at all, at least not compared to eating out or eating pre-made stuff.
I will confess that I did sign up for some meal-kit delivery services in the beginning. Yes, Blue Apron and the like are pricier than buying your own ingredients, but the idiot-proof recipes, tips, videos, and helpful explanations made the transition from non-cook to cook much easier. I kept all the recipes and put them in my cookbook. Now I can make them whenever.
Suddenly I’m watching the Great British Baking Show, Top Chef, and the Food Network instead of my usual fare. I’m reading cookbooks for fun. Who’d have thunk?
So, what is it exactly that I get out of cooking? Three primary things: A creativity boost, physical health improvements, and mental health benefits. Here’s a list of the things that cooking does for me:
Nice to finish something/sense of accomplishment.
Working as a writer, it’s rare for a day to end with a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I may be happy that I wrote 2,000 words, but the project isn’t finished. And it won’t be for many months to come. Writing is a long game and it takes weeks to months before you can say, “I finished something today.” That’s not true for cooking. After an hour I can say, “I finished that.” It feels pretty good.
Eating better/physical health improvement.
Big duh, but if you’re cooking from scratch using whole ingredients and real food, you’re eating better than if you eat out a lot, or eat a lot of pre-made stuff. I’ve been amazed at how much better I feel since I started cooking. And my doctor backs me up as my blood pressure, cholesterol, and other values have all normalized. So, yay!
Chopping, dicing, and mixing are all very controlled activities that require focus and concentration. (I’ve got the burns and bandaged fingers to prove what happens when your focus drifts too far.) The pressure of the day recedes and all you’re thinking about is the onion and the knife. It’s become almost a form of meditation for me, an hour where I can just be and do and forget the rest of my troubles.
I used to think cooking was a chore, but it’s really not. It’s become a fun activity for me. I crank up some tunes and sing along and boogie my way through the prep work. (Only when I’m alone. I do not subject others to this.) Plus, I’ve found that the act of cooking is a little like solving a puzzle, so it’s fun to see how it all turns out in the end.
It may seem like following a recipe isn’t very creative, but if you pay attention to the process (and get recipes from a variety of sources/cultures), it actually is. Asking, “Why use this instead of that?” “Why do these ingredients go well together?” “Why is this dish found so often in this culture?” or “What’s the ethnic/religious inspiration behind this dish,” etc. (and then taking the time to find or figure out the answer) can open your eyes to a whole new world and ways of doing things.
Even if I’m following a set recipe, I enjoy tweaking this or that to see the difference it makes. Things also get very creative when I don’t have a recipe in mind but instead try to make something from ingredients I have on hand.
Like most of the hobbies I gravitate toward (board games, learning languages, Lego, reading), cooking has a brain boosting benefit. And thank heavens for it because my brain needs all the boosting it can get these days. Following a new recipe, working with new ingredients, and keeping everything on track so that the meal comes out on time all add to the cognitive load. As I try ever-more complex recipes, I’m learning new skills, as well. All the chopping is also improving my dexterity.
Of course, it’s not all fun and joy I still hate to clean up. Dishes are no one’s idea of fun. (Although it is meditative, at least.) And I’m not that fond of shopping, either. (Especially right now in the midst of flu season. It’s a war zone out there.) But no creative hobby is one hundred percent perfect. Cooking offers me a lot of benefits that make the negatives worthwhile. Believe me, I never thought I’d be evangelizing cooking, but sometimes life gets weird and you find yourself loving things you never thought you would.
(Photo courtesy of Webvilla)