It wasn’t until I had my first baby and went through a very difficult time in my life that I really began to appreciate how precious to me my basic cooking skills are; that the simple act of de-skinning an onion and chopping it into fine pieces can be so apt in providing me with the respite I need from any internal angst I might be feeling.
I remember well one afternoon when I had just been discharged from hospital for the third time in as many weeks, having had my second (of what would be three) emergency surgeries, another blood transfusion, another round of nuclear-strength antibiotics, coming home exhausted to a tiny baby and feeling completely incapable of anything and overwhelmed by everything. But knowing that I needed to eat something – anything - to remedy the hospital food I’d been forcing down over previous days.
Within a few minutes I found myself cutting a lemon in half, stuffing it into a whole chicken; crushing a clove of garlic; a bit of salt and pepper in the cavity; and putting it into the oven so that within half an hour the flat was filled with the familiar and comforting smells of a roasting chicken that will soothe any tired and fractious soul.
And another hour later, I abandoned all convention and manners and just tore off pieces of flesh and skin from the carcass like a starved caveman. I didn’t bother putting anything on a plate and finished the meal by dunking bits of baguette into the salty, garlicky baking tray juices. And I knew that if I could still make a decent roast chicken and enjoy eating it, then everything would be okay.
A few months later, we moved for a year to the countryside, where the sheer weight of loneliness with a small baby was so crushing that one of my few daily comforts was the supper I would make in the evenings. The rituals - of skimming cookbooks for some recipe inspiration; the afternoon trip to Waitrose with E jollying around in the trolley as I collected ingredients; my evening glass of wine I’d enjoy while chopping, baking and boiling - all became such restorative procedures for me.
At the same time, I started blogging, and this, too, became a hugely cathartic exercise, as well as a vital lifeline in a world that felt to me so isolated. Every single one of the kind Facebook comments left by friends underneath a post meant more to me than they’ll ever know. And although times are happier now and I continue to enjoy writing and cooking even when I don’t feel like topping myself, their healing powers are just as valuable to me.
One of the by-products of my medical complications after E was born is an irrational but severe anxiety surrounding my and my children’s health. Every mother worries that her child will get ill, but to spend sleepless nights panicking and feeling physically sick with worry that your toddler has leukaemia because you’ve noticed a bruise on its leg at bath time is not conducive to a particularly healthy state of mind.
I have been to the GP with my own cancer diagnoses no less than six times in the past year. Last spring, for example, I had itchy legs, which I thought might be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The GP asked if I had shaved my legs recently and I realised I’d forgotten to moisturise after doing so.
A few months later I knew I had a brain tumour; the pain around my left eye was debilitating, bending down to pick things off the floor was agony and painkillers were barely touching the sides. Apparently this is a clear-cut case of a sinus infection.
I am fortunate to have a wonderful and patient GP who knows my medical history and understands the root of my concerns. In March, when I went to her with suspected bowel cancer, she said, “I know you think after everything you went through that nobody is listening to you, but I am”. I made her refer me to a gastroenterologist on Bupa anyway, and we made a deal that I would go and see a therapist to help me to work through what had happened four years ago.
Last week I found a mole that had changed and spent a hysterical weekend mentally writing letters from the grave to my daughters, which they would open on their 16th birthdays (I haven’t quite got round to scheduling therapy yet). I couldn’t get an appointment with my dermatologist, or any dermatologist within a 10-mile radius. Eventually I found a consultant an hour’s drive out of London, who charged £250 to tell me in three seconds flat that it was a spot.
And what do all of these episodes have in common, other than the fact I need a clinical psychologist to help me address them? It’s cookery. I often don’t feel much like eating when I’m in a state of despair about having to wait to see a reassuring GP or consultant and have self-diagnosed a stage IV disease, but cooking I can still do – and indeed I have to continue to do – because my family must eat.
Stepping into the kitchen to prepare a meal is my survival mechanism, not just on the most basic levels of human nature because we all need to eat to live, but also for my own mental survival: the small amounts of care and effort required to chop that onion; to fry it gently in olive oil; to keep stirring it so that it doesn’t catch and burn - each of those cooking processes gives me precious moments of respite from the wretched health anxiety. All menacing thoughts of hospitals, illness and death are temporarily displaced. The comforting and nurturing nature of cookery essentially becomes my emotional medicine at a time when I feel I am unable to control my physical self.
To that softened onion, I can add some shredded carrot, stock, pieces of leftover chicken, noodles, perhaps some spring onions. The four of us can sit round the kitchen table, with bowls of soup, talking about princesses, fairies and unicorns.
And all is right with the world.