Why is the thought of cooking so dreadful?
An essay and a recipe for breakfast. Words and photograph by Shon Faye.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking, eating and living. The season is a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our third writer for Cooking from Life is Shon Faye.
Why is the thought of cooking so dreadful?
An essay, and recipe for breakfast, by Shon Faye
‘Are you kidding me? I use my oven for storage’, Carrie Bradshaw tells her best friend Miranda as they shop together in Sex and the City’s third season. It’s a memorable line, widely perceived as one of Carrie’s least relatable traits (alongside her penchant for $400 shoes, funded entirely by one weekly column on dating). The suggestion that a grown woman in her thirties never cooks for herself is preposterous, of course: what adult can go without an oven?
Well, me. At the time of writing, dear reader, the oven in the small one-bedroom flat I rent alone in south London has lain dormant for the past two months because, needing a deep clean, it would fill the place with smoke if switched on. I have barely even noticed. I was already using it sparingly, occasionally cooking hash browns or chips or an M&S ready meal. I can’t remember the last time I boiled water in a saucepan. My last solid memory of trying to cook using a recipe is sometime in summer 2021. My fridge is empty except for milk.
I don’t think this way of living is glamorous. In the fictional character Carrie Bradshaw, it’s supposed to be an offhanded quirk, signifying her modernity, her lack of attachment to traditional feminine domesticity. I am, unfortunately, a real person who needs to eat three times a day, and my constant sense of overwhelm and inferiority about being unable to motivate myself to do this in the cost-efficient, organised manner everyone else can gnaws away at me (the same way I gnaw away at my little store-bought protein supplements). Let’s not even get started on the fact I can’t ever return the favour when friends invite me over for dinner: a whole language of generosity, conviviality and care is lost to me. My erratic, secretive and embarrassed relationship to food preparation is symptomatic of my erratic, secretive and embarrassed relationship to myself. Caring for my physical being has not, for the majority of my adult life thus far, been something I can be relied upon to do well.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘If she doesn’t cook, what does she eat?’ It has fluctuated over time, according to my circumstances and my means. I relied for years on a rotation of offerings from my mum, student halls and office canteens, with the odd bit of (overcooked) pasta at home. To get into some ancient history, I came of age in the early 2000s and was a chubby teen, which first nudged me towards skipping meals for aesthetic reasons; I never quite crossed over into disordered eating, but I was calorie-counting and studying the Atkins diet before I had even sat my GCSEs. Learning to cook didn’t seem like a priority. Unhelpfully, in my late teens I became hopelessly addicted to both alcohol and Marlboro Lights. This lasted for over a decade. Alcoholism has a habit of gradually reducing one’s interest in eating regular meals, let alone preparing them. The logistical relief of my appetite being suppressed was obviously curbed somewhat by the fact my drinking was also killing me. Lucky as I am to be well now, I remain astonished by just how many mealtimes must be observed in sobriety.
Today, in my mid-thirties and healthy, with a fitness routine of weightlifting and conditioning exercises, I tend to manage without cooking this way: I eat cereal at home for breakfast, or drink a Huel meal replacement shake; for lunch I will go to a supermarket conveniently located at the end of my street and buy a salad or wrap from the ‘Food To Go’ section; and in the evening I will either order in (this includes healthy options – in fact, I eat very little junk food and count my macros), dine out in restaurants or occasionally heat up a premium ready meal (when the oven is working). How do I afford it? Honestly, food is my largest expense. I know I pay a gigantic premium to access food without cooking. I don’t want to know what I could be saving if I grilled my own chicken breast, thanks. My current lack of frugality is made possible by the fact I have a moderately successful career and that I don’t drink, smoke, run a car or have a child.
Why is the thought of cooking so dreadful? Cooking is more than just cooking the food, of course. It’s actually a seemingly endless stream of tasks. You have to think about what you want to eat in advance (if I’m already hungry you can forget it – you’ve lost me). Then there’s the question of discovering the ingredients and listing them, then going to a shop and buying them all. This progression of tasks, all self-directed with no deadline and completely subject to my own caprice, typically leaves me panicked. People who say they find cooking therapeutic sound like aliens. An ex-boyfriend once suggested we make lasagne from scratch as a bonding activity and I behaved like I was being asked to accommodate an especially perverted kink. I realised in that moment he had no clue who I was at all. I tell myself I’ll put all the intimidating food admin off until a better time, though I left home for university in 2006 and the better time hasn’t yet come. I know this will sound incapable, lazy, petulant or mad to some. Trust me, I’ve been ridiculed and shamed by friends, housemates, lovers and the rest over the years. Nothing has changed, except now I live alone and I’m committed to being single for the foreseeable, which means I can hide it better. Could a diagnosis redeem me from all this judgement? Perhaps I’ve got ADHD? Some have suggested it. A couple of years ago the doctor gave me a form to fill out. Trouble is I haven’t got round to it yet.
The biggest irony of all my culinary strife is that I truly love food. New restaurants, new cuisines, other people’s cooking – they’re some of the things that bring me the greatest delight. I’ve chased all sorts of highs in my time, but firmly believe it doesn’t get better than a Sunday roast. I do not consider myself a fussy or picky eater. My tastes are catholic, ranging from the plain to the piquant. I’m not even a vegetarian! How has food, something I love so much and can relish so fulsomely, become so bound up with a sense of failure? I have learned along the way that self-reproach gets you nowhere and bad habits tend to improve gradually. Ten years ago, I never thought I would manage living alone, being self-employed, exercising regularly or even being on time for medical appointments, and yet I have gradually found ways to make all of these things work for me. None of the evolutions required were born of shame. My ‘fitness journey’ (sigh) has helped me reframe my more mundane meals as fuel, and I can already see a real advantage in being able to control my nutrition better by making my own food. Perhaps with this organic shift in perception, the mental barriers against cooking will soon fall? If not, I might just get an air fryer.
The only meal I reliably prepare at home is a delicious breakfast. Here I give the basic recipe, though some days I do add fruit (pre-diced).
Place the Weetabix in a bowl
Pour milk into the bowl
Leave for 2 minutes
Shon Faye is an author of political nonfiction based in London.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. The recipes in Cooking from Life are usually tested by Ruby Tandoh, though Vittles invites readers to test this recipe themselves.