It’s now three weeks since I’ve been living in lockdown in northern Italy. The situation is unprecedented in modern times and it is unnerving; not knowing how it will play out or how long it will go on. However, since the beginning, I’ve been compelled to get in the kitchen and cook, and I’m not the only one.
All over Italy and in other countries as they begin to impose the same lockdown conditions that exist in Italy, people are cooking. You can see it on social media. Even people who don’t normally post about what they cook, or have that much interest in it, are cooking. I’ve been asked for recipes by the most unlikely people.
Food seems to be the first consideration in a situation like this. People’s immediate impulse is to stockpile, people are filling their stores with dry goods, of course, this is Italy so pasta is the first thing people reach for, flour is in demand. People are making their own pasta and bread from scratch, people that usually wouldn’t.
Social media feeds are full of food as people share recipes and proudly display their meals. Chefs are starting live cooking shows on their social media channels. Massimo Bottura is cooking on his Instagram to over two hundred thousand people at a time.
But what is it about cooking through a crisis that is so appealing?
Marc Luxen, the author of ‘The Cook, The Diner and The Mind, The Psychology in the Kitchen and at the Table,’ says it has a lot to do with control.
“I think it’s a control issue,” says Marc on the phone from Thailand.
“In times of stress, people want to take control of the situation. If you’re stuck at home and you can’t leave, there’s not much you can do. You do some cleaning, but one of the few things you can do to take control is to start cooking for yourself and your family.
“It’s something that you can really control for yourself and that gives you some kind of psychological relief. That’s one of the main reasons,” he says.
It makes sense, the coronavirus situation feels like a situation that you have very little control over. Staying indoors is the only thing to do, and we are doing it as much as possible. For me cooking has become a compulsion, I feel a very strong draw to the kitchen. I obsess over what I’m going to cook, how I can minimise waste and get the right nutrition.
We are determined, and so far, managing to remain calm in the situation, but there is an underlying fear of the unknown, like a background hum, that can’t be ignored. It manifests every so often.
“When you’re at home in your kitchen you are in control, you know what’s happening. Why people experience stress, is about a loss of control. As soon as you get that back you feel better. Even if we’re not in control of the overall situation, a little bit of control always helps,” says Marc.
Without the ability to leave the house, the Internet and social media become your main source of information. With so many opinions, information and misinformation, it can be easy to become overwhelmed. We have to feed our minds as well as our bodies with the right food, so again, cooking is a remedy for the effects of the 24-hour news feed.
“I write about this in my psychology book,” says Luxen.
“Cooking is something that makes us quiet. It quietens the mind. You feel reassured in the kitchen. It sounds new-age, but the act of cooking is an act of connecting with yourself. It’s like walking, if you start to walk around, you start thinking, processing and your mind starts to quieten, it’s the same with cooking.
“It’s a very deep evolutionary psychology, much like there’s something about touching each other. You see it in primates, and that’s why we talk to each other too. I think it’s the same with cooking. There must be something essential in our brain that likes us to cook. Just like everyone loves fire, we are drawn to it, we stare at it. We are fascinated by fire.
“So if you are sitting on lockdown and you are isolated, you can’t check your assumptions with other humans, you’ve just got this deluge of information from the internet, of course, it’s natural to turn to something that is going to quieten your mind and relieve stress.”
Cooking is reassuring and the type of cooking that I’m doing on lockdown is reassuring cooking. It’s not the time for experimentation, for complicated recipes and techniques I’m not used to. I don’t want to have to deal with failure in the kitchen at this moment. I want hot, delicious, comforting food at the end of my work. Italian food, therefore, is perfect for this. It’s relatively easy to cook and it’s above all, comfort food.