When I was most anxious, I felt like life was a long list of grocery items that included something I needed and couldn’t find anywhere …
Sometimes I think I was born with a list of things that I was worried about (epigenetics is real!) And sometimes I think I am doing very well finding new things to worry about myself. In addition to therapy, sleep, physical activity (be it walking, exercise, or gardening), and talking to my wife and friends, cooking has also been a hugely calming force in my life. Although food definitely triggered a lot to make me anxious about it, it was the most consistent tool that should help me feel fortified.
Food has always helped me walk through doors that I feel frightened. I didn’t go to many parties in high school, so when I got into college and my new boyfriends invited me to go to parties, I smiled and said yes while I was panicking inside. Be comfortable at the party? Hang out with people from school next to the school? I wasn’t sure about that.
As someone who does not like to get anywhere empty handed, even at a home party in college, I quickly learn that I can calm my social anxiety if I stop at the food corner, buy the biggest bag of chips I can find, and bring them with me. They gave me an easy way to reach people without feeling totally embarrassed. “Do you want a potato chip?” It felt much easier than saying “hello”. Sure, it was a hoax, but the chips gave me a way in. I finally got comfortable at parties and other occasions without a bag of chips, but chips helped smooth out that comfort.
Another way I always make friends is by inviting people to have a meal. In fact, when I moved into the freshman dorm, I brought a bowl and toolbox full of basic kitchen gadgets so that it was easy to put them in and out of the common kitchen. These tools, a wooden spoon, peeler and tongs, made me feel like I had the things I needed to do something I love to do in a place I felt unfamiliar. They made me feel safe. I made spaghetti for my ground mates and roast chicken in aluminum tubs that are disposable at the grocery store. It was a way to expand into my new community.
When I moved into an off-campus apartment, I saved money to buy my first sturdy Dutch oven. I remember a friend who told me that my bowl was “too old.” It made me feel like an adult when I wasn’t sure about it (I still don’t always know, by the way). Not only did the cooking calm me down, but it also helped me feel that I could make the big world in which I found myself a little smaller.
Anxiety, like many complex things, has many edges. When I need to get out of a stressful environment or a group of people, cooking also allows me to do so. In other words, it is not just a method of communication, it is also a method of disconnecting. You can always leave the dining room table to wash some dishes or “make desserts” even if it’s already ready. The kitchen can be a breathtaking place. It’s part of the reason I love grilling so much. This means I’ll be out while everyone else is inside. I’m still part of the party, I make the food! But I’m just an arm’s length. And sometimes, this is exactly where I feel calm.
When I talk to other people about anxiety, I always like to know when most people feel themselves, and most of them are not. For me, when I stand in my kitchen alone to cook because I feel like it, not because I need to. There is music playing. I can hear my wife doing something in the other room. I can see our dogs lazily fall asleep on the bench by the kitchen window. I chop vegetables, and I do what so many people are doing at the same time around the world. 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 to do it. I don’t care if it turns out completely. It’s just dinner. I’m worried about nothing.
Ricotta and Potato Chips Fish Cakes with Peas
From the new cookbook Simply Julia
A tribute to the salmon pies I enjoyed one morning at Narobia’s Grits & Gravy in Savannah, Georgia (which has sadly been closed since then), these fish cakes rely on canned salmon, which is one of the most convenient and reliable things to keep. Your wardrobe. After browning the fish cakes, add some frozen peas and half of the peas to the skillet, making a bright green layer for the fish cakes. You can also skip the peas and serve fish cakes on toasted potato bread filled with mayonnaise and stacked with shredded lettuce and sliced pickles.
2-ounce bag of potato chips (preferably sour cream and onion flavor)
Two 6-ounce cans of wild pink salmon filled with water, well drained
1 cup full-fat ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning (or 1 teaspoon each kosher salt, sweet paprika, and garlic powder)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 oz package of frozen peas
Half a cup and a half
Half a teaspoon kosher salt
Leave some air out of the bag of chips, then crush the bag with a nail or wine bottle to make small crumbs. Transfer crumbs to a large bowl and add salmon, ricotta, and old bay. Grate the lemon peel well and add it to the bowl (keep grated lemon). Stir the mixture well until blended well, then chop the salmon well while mixing.
Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions and use your hands to shape each pie. It is helpful to divide the mixture in half and then in half again and so on, to make sure the pies are the same size.
Place the butter in a large non-stick skillet over a medium-high heat. Once it thaws and begins to bubble, place the fish cakes in the skillet and cook without disturbing them until the bottom is well brown (what a whole lot!), 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spoon to carefully turn each one and cook until nice brown on the second side, another 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to cook fish cakes in two batches depending on the size of your skillet (you don’t want to crowd the pan, and definitely give yourself room to turn them over – think spacing like pancakes). Transfer the fish cakes to a plate and cover with aluminum foil to keep them warm.
Lift the heat and put the peas, half and half, and salt in the same saucepan. Cook, stirring, until green peas are bright and tender, and reduce in half and slightly, about 4 minutes. Transfer delicious peas to a serving dish and place fish cakes on top. We cut the grated lemon into wedges and serve with fish cakes to press them. Serve immediately.
Thank you, Julia! we love Your book.
(This article and recipe have been reprinted from the new cookbook Simply Julia With permission. photo Melina Hammer.)