My love language is food.
I can’t help it. I come by it naturally. My parents are both native food speakers too, and it’s what we spoke at home when I was growing up. I’ve learned to speak other languages, but food is my first and most comfortable language of affection. Much of my ease in speaking food stems from its ability to foster experiences and meet physical needs simultaneously; so much of my life requires multitasking that meal preparation is a welcome ritual.
My mom is the second of six children. Her mother was largely absent, and so she cooked for her four sisters and her brother. She very rarely speaks of her childhood, but when she does, those memories all center on food. She recounts that she would often feed other children in the neighborhood—after all, she was already cooking for six, so stretching a meal for a few more wasn’t difficult. My dad, though, is the youngest of four, and his next-oldest sibling is ten years his elder. His family was rarely home—his older siblings were already grown, and his parents traveled constantly for work—so he learned to cook for himself. He figured he had to eat anyway, so he may as well eat things he liked.
I adopted their tactics from an early age. Since I can’t get out of eating—everybody has to eat to survive—I decided I might as well get into eating. Cooking, in particular, speaks to me in ways other self-management tasks just can’t. Cooking engages all of my senses, making it a prime technique for practicing mindfulness. I can cook alone or I can cook with others. And sharing a meal with people I love is such a treat, because we get to enjoy something we created together, enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy feeling the discomfort of hunger subside.
Food fills both my body and my spirit. I am an emotional eater, in the truest turn of phrase: I eat what feels good. Crisp, cooling dishes on hot days? Check. Rich, aromatic ones when the weather is foul? You betcha. Because food is comforting as well as nourishing, I can practice self-care through cooking. Nothing soothes my spirit quite like preparing one of my favorite meals. The process of preparation is an escape from the day’s troubles. I can wash away my anger, chop up my frustration, fry my mistakes. Engaging my distress yields something I know I love to eat and amplifies my enjoyment of my company, since I have no lingering negativity to distract me from them.
My food ritual begins on Sunday, when I look at the weather forecast for the week. I struggle with both weather-related blues and depression, so making sure I have a plan for the week means I don’t accidentally starve myself. When the weather turns cool and wet, as it so often does in Portland, standing before a warm stove stirring risotto or baking bread is a respite from capital-D Depression. Knowing the forecast helps me prepare not only the type of food I want to eat, but also for the amount of energy I’m likely to have that week. And understanding my limits helps me to best use every last ounce I have in reserve.
On days when my mental health is suffering, it is very, very easy for me to neglect my needs. Going to the deli counter, or, heavens forbid, the drive-through, is an easy out. It costs next to nothing, takes no time, and meets my caloric needs. But it fails to fill my spirits. There’s no soul in mass-produced food, and even though I’m getting the calories I need to survive, missing the ritual serves as a detriment to my well-being. That’s why cooking is an expression of self-love: I am at once refining my skills, enjoying the product of my hard work, and ensuring I eat something nutritious. Eating at least one home-cooked meal is on my to-do list each and every day, because even if I have to resort to a granola bar and an energy drink for dinner, those savory waffles I made for breakfast will tide over my spirit until I can cook again.
It’s easy to let cooking fall out of the routine. It’s easy to say I’ll cook when I feel better, or when I’m not working so much overtime, or when I really need to cook to save money. But letting that occur is the most dangerous thing I can do to myself. Skipping the process is detrimental to my mental health, just as skipping the product is to my physical health. Two days without a good meal and I’m a wreck of a human, cranky and achy and probably hungry too.
Food is so much more than just calories. Food is a ritual, a routine, an anchor when despair threatens to throw me overboard. Food is an experience that fully engages me. Food is a framework to support me through the crushing monotony of daily details and seasonal sadness. Beef stew on a cold spring day when nothing, NOTHING but shallots have grown for months on end fills my stomach and my soul. Crunchy peak-season produce on hot August nights when it’s too warm to even think about cooking soothes stomachs and tempers high as the temperature. Food fills and food heals. And it just so happens that food is a convenient way for me to connect to others.
Food is the primary way I show love for other people. I will ask you constantly if you’ve eaten, or if we can set a date for pierogi, or if I can bring food to you when you’ve had a bad day. It’s my way of attending to your needs. And it’s a prime opportunity for us to sit down together, and talk, and tell stories, and laugh. Meal times lend themselves to fostering friendships. Cooking a new dish or going out to try a new restaurant is a low-risk way to share a new experience with the people I love, thereby strengthening our relationship. And food is much less of a commitment than, say, backpacking through Europe together or deciding to be roommates.
Just shy of six years ago, I met my husband and also entered a very deep depression. My food habits became especially erratic, and the energy I would otherwise expend on self-care was spent on starting a new relationship. Feeding myself became an afterthought, and so I relied on things that were quick and convenient: a bag of trail mix picked up from the corner store near my home or some veggies and hummus from the student store on campus. And because my husband is not a native food speaker, he did not immediately recognize my behavior as anything unusual, let alone dangerous.
Fortunately, my husband is observant and quick to adapt. I lived near his work, so he would often come over in the afternoons. After a few visits, he realized I had all of these tools that weren’t being used: the recipe cards with greasy fingerprints, the cookbooks with dog-eared pages, the beloved pots and pans with the finish worn thin. And he asked, very simply, if we could start eating in. I was reluctant to commit to a ritual and a relationship, though, and tried to brush off the requests. He destroyed each of my excuses and even took it upon himself to cook every once in a while. He recognized the importance of the ritual. The bag of prewashed salad and grilled chicken were grammatically correct, if oddly pronounced, displays of affection in my native language.
Since then both my mental health and my cooking repertoire have improved, as has my husband’s familiarity with the language. There are nights we’re too busy to cook anything but beans and rice, but we still make time to sit down and eat beans and rice together. Sharing meals has become part of our ritual. We still need shortcuts every once in a while to get by, and although the meal may not be the most elaborate of our displays, it’s still an opportunity for us to show each other we care.
When I ask if you’ve eaten, it’s not that I think you look too skinny or that I think you’re cranky. It’s not to bump up my foodie cred or to diss your favorite cart. It’s that sharing meals is an opportunity for me to build a relationship with you, and I think you’re pretty neat. I know let’s do lunch is verbally lackluster, but please remember that my insistence on going on a picnic or out to that new restaurant will serve as a crash course to my use of food as a medium of my affection for you.