Make What Feels Good
Last summer I went to a gallery show and panel discussion for my internship. I’d been busy all week, and I had no idea how to get there. It was an art venue, so I was expecting a modern gallery with a quirky receptionist. After trudging to the marked address from the L train, I realized I would get none of these things.
Located at at Babycastles, an underground gallery in Chelsea, I had to get buzzed in like an apartment building. A careful walk down cluttered concrete stairs revealed a long, rectangular space with arcade games from indie developers along the walls. After delivering my apple babka—the invitation indicated it was a potluck—I sat down in the semicircle of chairs and tucked into a conversation on comfort food.
The brainchild of Jenn De La Vega, a food writer and resident at Taste and Kickstarter, the panel discussion gave me the much-needed affirmation I had been craving. The food was awesome, too. I had a handful of chips, some vegan hot wings, and a rich savory oatmeal with roasted mushrooms. Sounds weird, I know, but it was awesome.
As we sat together and ate, guests and panelists shared their favorite moments in the kitchen: the sound of cutting ginger, the snapping of onions thrown in hot oil. The discussion wandered, but it always seemed to return to the central question: what is comfort food, and why do we love it so much?
Like myself, De La Vega enjoys the comforts of food when bad things happen. “I usually don’t want to talk about my problem[s] until after I have my fried chicken,” she says.
“Finding a dish you love and can rely on can be an anchor when you don’t have control over other situations. Most people I spoke to mentioned their family’s cooking, items they are nostalgic about and familiar with. It feels like something you return to when you need it.”
I enjoyed the night but left the conversation conflicted. I’d been raised to eat to live, not the other way around. I can still hear my mom saying it. But I couldn’t deny the power of the panelist’s stories, the persuasion of self-nourishment through food laden with salt, MSG, or sugar. But my surface concern was a symptom of a deeper problem.
One of the cruelest ironies of my life is that my passion for food and my struggle with disordered eating coexist. While I seek to build connection through food, for years of my life I skipped meals and hoped no one would notice. I’m in recovery, but the temptation still lingers when I’m too busy to eat breakfast or when rent week creeps up.
The panel discussion helped me realize I had still been holding on to toxic thoughts. I still felt guilty for simple pleasures like tortilla chips and hummus. ‘Too many carbs,’ the voice in my head would say. But eating food that’s yummy isn’t wrong. It’s simply not.
To me, self-care as a movement appeared vapid at first, especially when I saw it as a hashtag. But when I realized that I can show appreciation for my body by making an intricate meal, everything changed. It’s not just pints of ice cream and bath bombs. I began to see the produce section as full of love letters from the earth. Every pear, onion, and lime told me that it was okay to have some extra inches around my waist.
It seems funny at first, being so emotional about vegetables. But in a world that changes the subway ads every week, it’s nice to see the same variety of apples when I go grocery shopping (Pink Lady is best). They provide constancy, simplicity, and beauty in my life. And I enjoy eating them.
A lot of refrigerators, especially those of college students, have heaps of stale takeout and sad frozen meals. Convenience is not the enemy here, but you will learn so much more about garbanzo beans—their texture, their aroma, their personality—by mashing them into falafel, frying it yourself, and serving it with pita. The value of the ritual is hidden behind the commands of the recipe, peeking out from behind the line “1/2 t. salt.” You don’t realize it until it becomes a part of your life, and you miss it when it’s not there. The next time you cook dinner, try to listen for it. You may be surprised.
When you make sourdough at home, you re-enact a rite which has taken place for millennia. Your choice to knead dough places you in a lineage of cooks who’ve decided it’s worthwhile to make something delicious, regardless of whatever turmoil may be around or inside us. Fermented bread has outlasted the Roman Empire, Ghengis Khan, and Nazi Germany. It’ll outlast all of us, too. When that boule comes out of the oven caramel-colored and blistered, you have declared by your actions that it is worth your own time to nourish yourself. It is a fundamentally human action, one based in survival. That is the beauty of cooking as self-care.
Warm Bulgur Salad with Roasted Chickpeas:A Meditation-as-Recipe
1 can chickpeas, strained
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 dried chili pepper (don’t overdo it)
1/2 c. bulgur wheat
1 medium onion
4 oz. feta cheese
2 scallions, sliced
2 1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 T. hummus
2 c. arugula
1 egg (two, if you’re hungry)
Strain a can of chickpeas. coat in olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Bake at 400° F for 20 minutes. Be sure not to crowd the pan. Listen for the sizzle. Watch them turn amber. Remove and let cool. Take some deep breaths. This is going to taste so good.
In an oiled medium-heat skillet, toss in garlic cloves and dried red chili. Let the garlic get fragrant. Notice the golden lines that trace across the clove as it browns. Transfer the garlic and pepper to a mortar and pestle, add a sprinkle of salt, and mash. Make sure to think about your bad boss, nasty ex, or the MTA. If it feels too dry, add a little oil from the pan.
Cook chopped onions with olive oil and remaining chili garlic paste on medium low. Let them get halfway caramelized; this should take at least fifteen minutes. If you’re feeling frisky, add some of the chili paste you just made. Take some more deep breaths, but not directly above the pan. You’ll cough up a storm.
Fill a medium saucepan with water and salt heavily. It should taste like the ocean. Please don’t skimp here. Heck, taste the water if you want. Once at a rolling boil, add the dry bulgur. It should take at least fifteen minutes, but taste test it before you strain it. When it’s ready, strain the grain and return it to the pot to it steam covered for ten minutes. Cool and set aside.
That was pretty easy, right? More deep breaths. You’re doing great.
In a mixing bowl, combine bulgur, scallions, caramelized onions, feta cheese, roasted chickpeas, tomatoes, and spoonful of hummus. If you need to adjust the seasoning for personal taste, do that here. Think about the tang from the feta and the umami from the roasted chickpeas. Does it need more acid? Once you’re satisfied, set aside. It should have at least thirty minutes before serving to let the flavors get to know each other.
Heat a skillet to high. It’s the last time, I swear. Add chili garlic paste, thinned with oil, until very fragrant and runs fast in the pan. Fry an egg, spooning the oil over the white. Make two if you’re hungry. Once the whites are set, remove immediately. If you don’t like runny yolks, you should probably just throw everything away at this point. I digress. Maybe I should be the one taking the deep breaths. Eat it however you want.
In a bowl, form a bed of arugula. Spoon bulgur salad over top, finish with egg, olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice if you’ve got it. Great job—you did it! (Even if you just read the recipe and said no thanks, I still win. Reading is self-care, too.)
Share with someone you love, or just eat it all yourself.