Exhaustion is a tricky state of being. When the physical, emotional, and mental reserves are very nearly spent – with what little energy is left reserved for a quick interlude of banging one’s head against the wall – it feels as if all there is left to do is burrito into a blanket and wait for your old spirit to return at its own convenience. While this method can certainly yield results on occasion, it can also be a little like waiting for Godot.
This year has brought more than its fair share of exhaustion in all its forms. And with my current schedule coupled with the state of the world, most days are some form of a fight against the Exhaustion Beast looking to woo me directly to inactivity at the first chance I get. Despite this, I consistently find the fortification I need in the kitchen. While I enter the work feeling spent (and as a result, perhaps a little grumpy), I am often able to lose myself in the productive meditation of chopping an onion. Little by little, a spent spirit finds excitement again, as the focus turns from the existential and uncontrollable to that happening at the moment.
There are, of course, the unique frustrations of the process. Sometimes those of the day’s work are not sufficiently lost before critical moments on the stovetop, and therefore seep into the dish in unsavory ways. Or an unfocused mind is simply unable to be reined in sufficiently, making an instinct for spices and timing that is usually well-tuned wander off for the day leaving the results lackluster. It’s these times of fallibility that seems out of my hands that can make me feel most human in ways I can take in variable stride.
But when the Cooking Deities are on my side, I am able to lose myself in the little accomplishments that culminate in one with a doubly comforting and utilitarian purpose. Not only am I given the pleasure of making something from nothing, breaking things down to build them back up again, but some of the best dishes allow me to live in the memories that come with them. After a long day of futility, sometimes it’s not the ease of throwing something in the microwave that will make things seem brighter, but indulging in a reminiscence of arancini from our favorite local Italian restaurant (now closed) as I gingerly lower and raise rice balls from crackling oil. Or being able to tune into the same burbles and blops of a braise going low and slow that so many other chilly days have heard before.
That’s not to say there are not the days when defrosting the soup from a few months ago or the typical takeout order is the best thing. There is a unique joy in unwrapping the gift you made for yourself in a different time. But even that, at its root, comes from a process of culinary care. Taking what extra fortification you are able to muster and socking it away for when you’ll need it. For when the exhaustion is too formidable an opponent.
But, on most days I will try pushing against exhaustion’s forces. When I feel like slicing and dicing some veggies and standing over the stove is impossible to muster, I continue to try seeing where taking out the cutting board will get me. Maybe it gives me just enough strength to preheat the oven. One thing leads to another and before long the jaw is loose (maybe unclenched?) and the mind lost to the spark of creation.
I won’t claim that that it’ll be a complete antidote. The very thing that makes it restorative makes it only a temporary salve, and an escapist one at that. But I would encourage you, if you’re feeling the world’s weight to be particularly crippling one day, to make something you love. Make something you’ve never had. Make something where you’re swimming in the text of the recipe, stumbling through step by step. Make something you can pull together with the brain totally turned off and the hands go on (a mindful and careful around fire and knives) autopilot. Take what energy you have left that day and try using it to start the journey of a meal. Just starting might get you farther than you’d expect yourself to go.