Cooking childhood comfort foods as a form of self-care

During the second half of my junior year of college, my mental health was at an all-time low. My anxiety and depressed moods came and went so often that I was worried about why it was happening. I had experienced these feelings before, but never to this extent. I found myself distancing myself from my family and not enjoying the things I used to enjoy like writing. Everything from going to school to waking up in the morning became for me a chore that I dreaded. After all, school and work failed only to make the way I already felt worse. I was desperate for an “answer” as to why this was happening again and for a “solution”. That was all I could think about then, and now in retrospect, I realize that the process of healing and treating one’s mental health is much more holistic and takes time.

After conversations with my friends and my therapist, the question “How long has it been since you saw your family?” came up several times. It made me begin to realize that not only had I not spoken to my family on the phone in months, but it had also been a while since I visited home in Northern California after returning to school in Los Angeles. In my first freshman year, I called as often as I could and sometimes visited on weekends along with holiday breaks.

It hit me one day that maybe it was the fact that all sense of familiarity was out of sight for so long that all these new experiences I was having from moving into my first apartment to conflicts with others were not balanced by the reasoning that comes . from engaging with acquaintances.

Even though I was isolating myself from my family, I still wanted to feel close to them in small ways. What came to mind was my mum’s cooking, the thought of all the home cooked meals I had grown up with brought a great sense of comfort so I started cooking. With cooking came the desire to recreate the atmosphere that my mother had created when she cooked. I began stocking my kitchen with the foods I needed to prepare all the meals that I thought were essential to my growth: cornmeal, tomatoes, corn, cotija cheese, serrano and poblano peppers, tortillas, and more.

cooking with nostalgia
Photos courtesy of Laysha Macedo

There is nothing more nostalgic to me than the smell of serrano peppers and tomatoes roasting on the stove. Despite the fumes, this fragrance is unlike any other and was necessary for me to take myself back to a lighter time in my life. As I baked everything on a piece of aluminum foil, just like my mom, I played Maná and all the tunes my parents love to play on weekend mornings, while my mom made fresh salsas. I also wanted to teach myself how to make tortillas and memelas, despite feeling a little intimidated trying to make them from scratch. Through trial and error, I was able to get to a point where my tortillas and memelas were not stiff. It seemed almost surreal that as I was making the dough, it was me and not my mother feeling the dough in my hands, forming it into balls and then flattening them. Just as I felt connected to my mother, I also found myself feeling all the women in my family around me. While I was trying to close the distance between me and my immediate family, I was also growing closer to my family in Mexico, whom I have only seen in person once or twice in my life.

With my forays into arroz con leche, chilaquiles, and pudding, I found myself slowly reconnecting with my family. Calls to ask about recipes turned into calls just to catch up, and eventually I was able to escape the feeling of needing to put distance between my family and myself. In addition to my struggles with mental health, other issues between me and my family—family fatphobia and marianismo—discouraged me from talking to them, but through my cooking journey, I found peace in knowing that I can’t change my parents’ minds. mine. for many things and I should not even spend my energy trying to do so. As I cooked to heal, I realized that I am done with the constant fighting that comes with home visiting. For example, the prevalence of diet culture in my family has affected me and has been the start of many arguments. Now, instead of fighting like I used to – which was a source of stress and a blow to my confidence – I just take a stand by creating boundaries. There are some things that are so ingrained that it’s hard to unlearn, and even though we keep having the same conversation about those topics, things never change. When I tried, I ended up burned out and wanting to distance myself from my family, which only hurt us both.

Before I was more intentional and meaningful with cooking, I cooked just for practicality, just to fulfill my most basic need. Now, I approach cooking as a way to cope with my struggles based on what I am most familiar with and desire. Cooking has given me a sense of fulfillment as I find myself able to recreate the flavors I feel so close to me, while also improving useful skills. From gathering the ingredients to hearing the noise as the food heats up. the time alone in the kitchen is something that allows me to focus on the present and not focus so much on negative feelings or anxiety-provoking thoughts. After this experience, I know that cooking is something I can turn to when I need a moment to ground myself and deal with whatever I’m going through while also connecting with my family and my roots.

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