Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting Back To Making

Sometime, at the end of July, my appetite disappeared. And generally, from morning to night for that past two months, I’ve experienced very little hunger or real yearning for food — no pangs, shakes or headaches. Appetite: gone.

I guess that’s what grad school — and a thesis — does to a person.

In the filming, writing, designing and editing of my thesis, I lacked stomach-space for much else. I’d spent months eating but not tasting. Everything had the consistency of cardboard and was consumed more out of necessity and habit than enjoyment. I’d spent the week before the hand-in hooked to any caffeinated beverage available.

It was not until the hour after I turned in my masters thesis that I recognized the pain in my gut as something other than stress. Immediately, I knew that the dull drone, which flooded my stomach, veins and heart, functioned as more of a primal, carnal urge than the usual three-meals-a-day timer I had been ignoring. Tom asked how I wanted to celebrate the end of my academic year. I told him I needed a burger, and I wanted it Rare. For the record, I totally wimped out and ordered my swiss and mushroom burger Medium Rare, but it didn’t stop a quarter pound of grilled, ground chunk from jolting me out of a work/survival state. Maybe I was completely iron deficient, but by the end of that burger, I was nourished, and not just because I’d consumed more protein than I had in an entire week (I’m not proud of this). With the ever-looming deadline now gone (crossing ‘Thesis’ off of my to-do list was weird), the flavors of food — nutty Swiss, the vinegar bite of pickle, the tang of ketchup and the earthy tones of lots and lots of mushrooms — mattered once more. “Hey friends,” I wanted to say, “I didn’t know how much I missed you.”

And so I started eating again. I became slightly less pale and less caffeinated. That’s simple enough, right? Well, yeah. But there’s another thing. All this stressed-out thesis-writing made me miss out on everything surrounding my plate: the making, the preparing, the gathering, the sharing. Thesis/Grad school-state had prompted the desire to cosy up to my pots, pans and food processor to slide down the drain. Going to the grocery store — one of my truly favorite places anywhere — was depressing. I didn’t even remember when or where I had last seen my baking tray (turns out it was in the safe hands of my deli man). In the process of not caring about food at all, I stopped caring about what I love about food. All of that inexplicable, unpinpointable stuff. Like how the mixed up fragrance of my spice cabinet transports me to either my parents’ house or deep into the dead of winter depending on how close my nose drifts to the cumin. Or how, due to my finger-cutting track record, my heart races into my ears every time I slice through a tomato, inducing a lycopene-ated adrenaline rush.

Despite all of my thesis-related complaining, things weren't that bad. I like having stuff to do. I like being busy, and I like when the busy-ness is thinking-oriented. The shelves inside my head move, shuffle and order themselves. We run in our own world.

But with my year-long project technically “over,” I have been at a bit of a loss. Under a rock, as one friend and fellow coursemate put it. But how do you get going when the thing you’ve been working towards for so long is gone? The past couple weeks have been a challenge. I’m trying to live in the moment and trying to learn that while change is hard, my own head shelves can be filled in other ways. I took up knitting. I spent most of last week covering the London Design Festival. I have begun the tedious process of extending my visa. But one thing has been slow to reshape. Maybe because it’s so, well, unpinpointable. And that’s been my desire to make for others.

The best kind of unpinpointable stuff has nothing to do with tasting or smelling or slicing at all. It is the opportunity to feed not only myself but to feed another that invokes a slightly levitation-like pleasure. Think of it as transcendental foodmaking. I know I’m romanticizing the idea of cooking for someone else. I don’t have kids. I don’t deal with picky eaters (Actually, I am, out of everyone I know, the pickiest eater). And now that I’m finished with grad school and applying for jobs baking cookies, I’ve got time to put more thought and time into the thing that sustains me. I am, by no means, a domestic goddess. Nor do I want to be. But in order to start moving out of this post-thesis slump, I’ve had to get my kitchen in order. Which is why Sunday was so special.

Tom woke up before the sun rose to go to Brighton for a fifty-mile bike tour. I awoke three hours later with the house and day to myself, a daunting idea considering the schedule I’ve been keeping. I’d wasted the gorgeous day before on the couch, knitting and attempting to keep the overwhelming and nervous feeling of having not-much-to-do at bay. Gross. I didn’t want to repeat that. So I wandered over to Kensington to take in the last hours of the London Design Festival. But my interest in chairs began to dwindle. I felt the pull of something else: the intoxicating, yeasty, thick aroma of bread. I bought a loaf. A giant, crusty, fresh round of Gail’s potato rosemary bread. What to do next? That was easy. It was time to start making. And so I did. I reacquainted myself with the grocery store and I decided not to play it safe; Sunday welcomed two new recipes to my repertoire — a red wine chocolate cake, topped with a creamy mascarpone and a sticky lamb stew that has, unbelievably, gotten better with each day. When Tom got home, the house smelled good (I think he was a little surprised to see me off the couch). Aproned-up, pony-tailed and floury-faced, I practically levitated across the kitchen floor — mixing and stirring, shuffling the shelves in the pantry and in my head — happy to be back. Happy to have finally pinpointed what had been there all along.