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How cooking has helped my wellbeing during the war

Elana Benjamin
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How cooking has helped my wellbeing during the war

Published: 10 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in the kitchen. But cooking has been a welcome antidote to my sense of grief and a reprieve from grim news.

The weekend after the September 11 attacks in 2001, my mother retreated to her kitchen and cooked. It was her way of gaining some semblance of stability in a world gone mad. Mum made soup and baked biscuits, seeking comfort in the familiar, meditative action of stirring onions with garlic and ginger; rolling balls of cookie dough and flattening them into circles. Since the horrific events of October 7, I have similarly been finding sanctuary in my kitchen.

In the days after Hamas terrorists massacred and kidnapped Israeli civilians, I was constantly on my phone – watching news updates, messaging Israeli family and friends, scrolling through social media. I saw images I wish I’d never seen, that I cannot now unsee. Photos and videos that made me sob and rage, that appalled and frightened and completely overwhelmed me.

By the end of the first week, I was exhausted. I knew I had to consume less news – which meant replacing my screen addiction with a different activity. Something I could focus on that would help me feel calmer.

Usually, I turn to writing to focus my attention and to make sense of the world. But I couldn’t concentrate on writing. And how could I possibly make sense of this catastrophe? The hatred and cruelty and suffering left me mute. I needed an activity which didn’t require too much thinking, which would engage my senses, and allow me to move my body. I switched my phone to silent, called my Bombay-born mother for some comfort-food recipes, and headed to Coles.

In between reading Noa Tishby and keeping up with the onslaught of WhatsApp messages and Zoom info sessions, I’ve been cooking marag (Indian-Jewish chicken soup), khichri (lentils and rice) and chai (Indian spiced tea); I’ve roasted potatoes and baked chocolate cake and made pizza from scratch.

These small acts of preparing and sharing food with my loved ones – mostly my husband and two children, plus occasional leftovers for my ageing parents – have lifted my spirits.

I know my culinary pursuits cannot undo Hamas’s unthinkable barbarity, or bring back the hostages, or stop the chants of “from the river to the sea”. No combination of ingredients will eradicate the terrifying antisemitism that Jews worldwide are experiencing, remedy the plight of innocent civilians in Gaza, correct infuriatingly inaccurate media reports, or undo the shocking silence, and hostility, of much of the progressive Left.

So I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in our respective kitchens. But with the war weighing heavily on my wellbeing, I’ve found cooking to be an antidote to my crushing sense of grief, and a reprieve from the vortex of grim news.

After the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas,  the founding editor of New York Times Cooking, Sam Sifton, wrote that “food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving.” In Judaism, this is especially true: it’s customary for mourners to eat a boiled egg after a funeral, representing the cycle of life; we bring food to those sitting shiva.

It’s the process of preparing food, more than the outcome, that’s provided relief from my seesawing emotions.

“Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike”, Sifton continued. “We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.” Today Sifton’s words resonate. It’s the process of preparing food, more than the outcome, that’s provided relief from my seesawing emotions.

Whether it’s grating zucchini, inhaling the aroma of curry leaves, or kneading dough until it’s smooth, cooking helps me stay in the present moment instead of replaying Instagram reels in my mind, or worrying about when and how this war will end. Quietening my thoughts is easier if I pair meal prep with listening to music – which these days, is mostly George Michael on a Spotify loop, after Netflix’s recent Wham! documentary rekindled my obsession with the late singer-songwriter.

As long ago as 2014 – well before Covid’s sourdough-baking craze – the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that some health care clinics were using cooking or baking as therapeutic tools for people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

But the benefits of cooking aren’t limited to people struggling with mental health conditions. As one clinical counsellor told the WSJ, preparing and sharing food with others is therapeutic because it’s central to who we are as humans. And right now, affirming our humanity seems more important than ever.

American neuroscientist Dr Kelly Lambert says using our hands to make things is one of the best ways to achieve all-round wellbeing. Making things with our hands releases brain chemicals, including dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, that help us feel good. This helps explain why many people turned to breadmaking during the pandemic. And why I’ve been finding solace in my kitchen.

Making things with our hands releases brain chemicals that help us feel good. This helps explain why many people turned to breadmaking during the pandemic.

Ideally, cooking involves the transformation of individual ingredients into delicious dishes. Mix butter, flour, eggs and sugar, for example, add heat, wait an hour and presto! – you have cake. Converting raw ingredients into tasty meals can also involve emotional alchemy, helping shift our feelings as we peel, dice, stir-fry and slice.

There’s not much formal research into how cooking influences our emotions. But as Nigella Lawson writes in her bestselling cookbook, How to be a Domestic Goddess, “cooking, we know, has a way of cutting through things, and to things, which have nothing to do with the kitchen”. This has certainly been my experience in the four weeks since October 7.

I’m still grieving, still finding it hard to believe all that’s taken place and the heartbreaking events which continue to unfold. But I no longer feel mute. The many hours I’ve spent quietly tinkering in my kitchen over the last few weeks have soothed and fortified me; they have helped me think more clearly.

I’m writing again, I’ve invited guests for Shabbat dinner, I’m engaging with wider community initiatives. I’m more careful about how much time I spend on social media and WhatsApp. And if I start feeling overwhelmed, I know where to go to seek respite.

As much as I hope and pray for peace in the Middle East, it saddens and scares me to say that I don’t know how it can be achieved anytime soon. But I do know that the small act of preparing a meal and eating it with others can bring moments – perhaps even a few hours – of the inner peace which seems to be eluding so many of us right now.

About the author

Elana Benjamin

Elana Benjamin is a Sydney-based writer whose articles have been published widely, including in Good Weekend, Sunday Life and the Sydney Morning Herald. Elana is also the author of ‘My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi’ and a co-founder of Sephardi Mizrahi Voices Australia.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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