When I was most worried, I felt that life was a long list of foods that included something I needed that I couldn’t find anywhere …
Sometimes I think I was born with a list of things I cared about (epigenetic inheritance is real!), And sometimes I think I find new things very well to take care of on my own. In addition to therapy, sleep, physical activity (whether it’s walking, exercising or gardening) and talking to my wife and friends, cooking is also the main calming thing in my life. While food definitely made me worry, it was the most consistent tool that must help me feel grounded.
Food has always helped me get through doors that feel scary. I didn’t attend a lot of parties in high school, so when I first got to college and my new friends invited me to go to parties, I smiled and said yes, as I quietly panicked inside. Do you enjoy the party? Hanging out with people from school other than school? I wasn’t so sure about that.
Being someone who doesn’t like to come anywhere empty-handed, even to a college party, I quickly learned that I could alleviate social anxiety if I stopped at a corner, bought the biggest bag of chips I could find, and brought them with me. They gave me an easy way to approach people without feeling completely embarrassed. “Do you want potato chips?” it felt a lot easier than saying “hello.” Sure, it was a short shot, but the chips got into me. In the end, I was comfortable at parties and other occasions without a bag of chips, but the chips helped pave that comfort.
Another way I’ve always gone around making friends is inviting people to a meal. In fact, when I moved into my dorm, I brought a pot and a tool box filled with basic kitchen tools so it would be easy to take them to the shared kitchen and take them out of it. Those tools, a wooden spoon and a peeler and pliers and the like, made me feel like I had things to do that I love doing something in a place that seemed so unfamiliar to me. They made me feel safe. I made spaghetti for my subjects and roasted chicken in disposable aluminum sherpas from the store. It was a way for me to expand into my new community.
When I moved into an off-campus apartment, I saved money to buy the first solid Dutch oven. I remember a friend telling me that my pot “grew up that way”. I felt like an adult when I wasn’t so sure what it was (by the way, I still don’t know). Cooking not only calmed me down, but helped me feel like I could make my big world I found myself in a little smaller.
Anxiety, like many complicated things, has so many edges. When I need to leave a stressful environment or group of people, cooking also allows me to do so. In other words, it’s not just a way to connect, but also a way to disconnect. You can always leave the table in the dining room to wash some dishes or “prepare dessert”, even if it is already ready. The kitchen can be a place to breathe. Part of why I love barbecue so much. That means I have to be outside while everyone is inside. I’m still part of the fun, preparing food! But I have to be a little at hand. And sometimes that’s where I feel most at ease.
When I talk to other people about anxiety, I always like to find out when people feel best, most without worry. For me, it’s when I stand in my kitchen and cook because I like it that way, not because I have to. Music is playing. I hear my wife doing something in another room. I see our dogs napping lazily on the bench by the kitchen window. I chop vegetables, I do what many other people do around the world at the same time. I am alone, but I am also in solidarity. I am satisfied and present. I know what I’m doing and I have everything I need for it. I don’t care if it turns out perfect. It’s just dinner. Nothing worries me.
Ricotta and potato fish cake with peas
From a new cookbook Simply Julia
A homage to the salmon burgers I enjoyed one morning at Narobia’s Grits & Gravy in Savannah, Georgia (which has unfortunately been closed ever since), these fish cakes rely on canned salmon, one of the most convenient and reliable things to keep your closet. After baking the fish cakes, add a little frozen peas and a half and a half to the pan that makes up the light green bed for the fish cakes. You can also skip the peas, and serve the fish cakes on fried rolls with sliced mayonnaise and stacked chopped lettuce and sliced pickles.
One bag of 2 ounce chips (preferably with sour cream and onion flavor)
Two cans of wild pink salmon, packed in water, well drained
1 cup ricotta cheese from whole milk
1 tablespoon Old Bay spices (or 1 teaspoon each kosher salt, sweet pepper and garlic powder)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
One pack of 10 ounces frozen peas
½ half a cup
½ a teaspoon of kosher salt
Let some air out of the bag of chips, then crush the bag with a rolling pin or bottle of wine to make fine crumbs. Transfer the chips crumbs to a large bowl and add the salmon, ricotta and Old Bay. Finely grate the lemon zest and add it to the bowl (reserve the lemon with zest). Stir the mixture well to combine, really breaking the salmon while stirring.
Divide the mixture into 8 equal parts and shape each into a burger with your hands. It is useful to divide the mixture in half, then in half and so on to make sure the burgers are the same size.
Put the butter in a large skillet that does not stick to a medium heat. Once it melts and starts to bubble, put the fish cakes in the pan and cook without interfering until their bottom is nicely browned (what a sentence!), 2 to 3 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully turn each over and cook until nicely browned on the other side, another 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to cook the fish cakes in two batches, depending on the size of your pan (you don’t want to clutter the pan and be sure to give yourself space to roll them over – you think the spaces are like pancakes). Transfer the fish cakes to a plate and cover them with foil to keep them warm.
Increase the heat and put the peas, half-and-half and salt in the same pan. Cook, stirring only, until the peas become light green and tender and until half-and-half slightly reduced, about 4 minutes. Transfer the hot peas to a serving tray and place the fish cakes on top. Cut the sliced lemon into wedges and serve the wedges with the fish cakes to squeeze. Serve immediately.
Thank you, Julia!! We love your book.
(This essay and recipe have been reprinted from the new cookbook Simply Julia with permission. Photos: Melina Hammer.)