Cooking As A Way Of Healing

How the path to true wellness can start in the kitchen

When you're sick, you eat chicken soup. When you get dumped, you cannonball into a pint of ice cream. But what do you do when a brain aneurysm shocks your daily routine into oblivion? Or when a massive stroke leaves you unable to fully communicate?

Food can certainly act as medicine for whatever ails you, but for many, the actual act of cooking can be just as—if not more—therapeutic than the meal itself.

This rings particularly true in the case of author Jessica Fechtor, who recounts her recovery from a near-fatal brain aneurysm in her memoir Stir. Along the way, she shares the meals and recipes she used to reform the physical connections and abilities that were overcast by injury.

The recipe for healing is infinitely messier than, say, one for baking a butter almond cake. Ingredients aren't listed in order (should you take medicine before a meal, or after?), there are unforeseen setbacks (infections, multiple surgeries) and it always seems to take longer than you're told. But Fechtor's story is about more than just perseverance; it also walks the reader through her own relationship with food as she realizes how much cooking means to her and gets inspired to start a food blog. "Beginnings are everywhere," Fechtor says. "You just have to know where to look."

In the arc of recovery, small yet defining moments are key. Burning biscuits may not sound like a triumph, but being able to feel annoyed by the mishap is a sign that your health no longer demands full real estate of your attention. "It was a big deal when I was finally well enough to care if something was salty, or sweet, or tasted just like my mom's," she says. "It was like, 'Oh, there I am!'"

Fechtor's injury was one clear moment, but for others, the onset is not as sudden. That's the case for Paula Wolfert, famed cookbook author and the closest Mediterranean cooking will ever get to its own messiah. She's also the subject of Unforgettable, the result of a successful Kickstarter by food writer and editor Emily Kaiser Thelin.

The biography, which has Wolfert's recipes woven throughout, traces her life from the taste of ajvar, the smoky eggplant-pepper relish that flicked on her culinary light at age five, to her current crusade against dementia's diminutive effects. Since her 2013 diagnosis—most likely of Alzheimer's—Wolfert has struggled with memory loss, and cooking is a painful constant reminder of what she can no longer do with ease.

Thelin says some of the more powerful moments in writing the book came when Wolfert claimed she couldn't remember how to cook a specific recipe, but "her hands remembered what to do." One example of this was with ajvar—the same dish she loved from her immigrant grandmother in the 1940s.

Another woman whose time in the kitchen fell prey to illness is the late Judy Gethers—mentor to Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Silverton, friend of Julia Child and a brilliant cook. When a stroke left her unable to cook, her son, Peter, decided to learn how to prepare the meals she loved in order to learn about her past and tell her story.

"Food usually is an extension of the person preparing it," Peter writes in My Mother's Kitchen, the newly released book that documents his—and her—journey. Through preparing the dishes that meant so much to his mother, in her company, he was able to bring her memories to the surface, and find peace and a distraction from her illness through cooking.

Where Wolfert was able to show rather than tell, Judy found herself talking about food, despite being physically unable to cook—or to talk about much else, due to her stroke-induced aphasia. 

As anyone who's found oneself elbow-deep in a bowl of brownie batter in a time of need can attest, cooking is deeply therapeutic. Indeed for some, cooking is therapy. In the same ilk as art or music therapists, there's a growing field of healers who aim to relieve depression and anxiety via cooking.

As Peter points out, "Food heals the chef in many ways—the actual process of cooking is calming and soothing, and allows for time and space to think and breathe."

Fechtor agrees, "It's what kept me putting one foot in front of the other," she says. And though Thelin is the first to concede a lack of hard science to back these claims, she insists that the change in Wolfert's outset was palpable. "I could see how the simple act of exploration revived her spirits and her interest in life."

When you're unwell, you've lost your identity, whether transiently or indelibly. And cooking—as well as eating—can be a way to try and get that sense of self back. "Cooking didn't just give her pleasure; it provided her with her sense of identity," Peter says of his mother. Likewise, Thelin emphasizes the "sense of agency" that cooking provides for Wolfert.

For Fechtor, the kitchen proved to be the way of finding out who she would be, more so than the pre-injury version of herself. "Getting well means finding your everyday," she writes. "I found mine in the kitchen."