Before I learned to meditate, I cooked to calm myself. I took to the pink and white speckled countertops I was barely tall enough to reach at nine years old. I rumbled through the contents of the pantry, refrigerator and freezer and scanned the cookbook library my mother amassed for inspiration and direction. And although now, today, cooking is a source of calm, peace and centeredness for me, it didn’t begin this way. Nor did cooking become something I did, at that young age, out of choice.
At nine years old, I cooked from a place of obligation. Parsing together odds and ends, making Hamburger Helper, or ripping open a bagged salad as a side to a meatloaf of casserole my mother had already made, was an expectation. A duty. A role I had no choice but to fulfill.
As the oldest of four girls, instinctually, a lot of things fell on my shoulders — being an example to my younger sisters, never messing up or making a mistake lest my sisters see it and act the same, helping my parents with things they couldn’t do. The list was endless really but at nine years old, my chief responsibility was cooking. I cooked to bridge the gap between the other parent that wasn’t present — my father.
My first meal, the first meal I ever cooked, was Hamburger Helper.
I was mostly enthusiastic about cooking in the approved electric skillet. The ground beef felt squishy and smelled funny between my small hands. I broke the huge mass of uncooked meat from the Styrofoam tray with saran wrap and threw it portion by portion into the hot skillet.
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle.
I stirred the beef around the skillet and watched as it magically turned from the faint pink to a warm brown color, reminding me of the oak trees that danced in the shade behind our house.
Pop, pop, pop.
I had leaned too close to pan and the grease stung my eyes. Lesson learned.
Plunk, plunk, plunk.
I placed the dried noodles into the pot and slowly poured the water into the skillet. The water, meat and noodle mixture began to boil and bubble just as the directions on the back of the box said they would. After adding a sauce pack and a dash of fresh sour cream, the chef within me emerged.
I still don’t know the details of why my father was gone for four years, from when I was nine years old to about when I was 13, to his native country Nigeria. But he was gone and a massive hole, a void was created when he left. For those four years which seemed to linger for an eternity, I tethered my sadness, anguish, confusion and anger for not knowing, for being purposely kept in the dark, to my obligation of putting food on the table in the evening. It started as a duty and became — a love, my love, my space, my resting space.
Something tinged with frustration, something I initially didn’t want to do, became something I relied on. The time I spent cooking those years, poring through cookbooks, watching my mother’s example, combining flavors and spices and smells to liking, became the way I worked through not knowing. Through not knowing where my father was, where he had gone or when, or if, he’d ever return. He’d abandoned me. That I knew. Cooking might save me. I also knew that.
I learned how to meditate at 24. At the time, I was nearing the end of my tutelage of a toxic job, a job I was fired from after six months. The unemployment which followed after for a month was four weeks of spiraling out from anxiety and not knowing what would come next. At the time, I was still a practicing Catholic, so I launched a spiritual director search in hopes of finding someone to help me spiritually ground myself during a period rife with uncertainty.
The person I found, the woman I still see once a month today, lived 10 minutes away from me. She taught me how to sit and how to breathe. She taught me to not be afraid of the noise in my mind. She taught me how to carefully put those thoughts that arose while mediating to the side and gently re-centering myself, over and over again. She taught me that there was grace in stillness.
But also, learning how to meditate taught me that I’d been meditating all along, since I was nine, each time I took to the kitchen. What else could the slow, measured moments slicing, dicing and chopping, with only the sound of my chef’s knife ricocheting off the wooden cutting board considered to be?
It is a wellspring of emotion and inner connectedness. I purposely keep a notepad on the counter next me to me while I prep and as I transition from prepping and mise en place to cooking the components of my meal. The notepad is there because I know, like a rushing flood, emotions, words, sentences, thoughts and everything I could possibly imagine come forth. Each and every time. My time spent in the kitchen is sacred. It is my space. It is my time. It is where I feel most in tune with my heart, spirit and mind more than any other place in the world.
Photo by jh_tan84, CC BY 2.0
Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, who lived in Madrid and three years later still sings its praises.