Learning to Cook, Cope and Be Cool: Alyssa Shelasky’s Apron Anxiety

Three parts rollicking memoir, one part cookbook, journalist Alyssa Shelasky’s Apron Anxiety tells how the author pulled through a low point in her life by learning to cook. Here, she shares a taste of her story. 

At thirty-two, I lost my fighting spirit. Nothing terrible had happened—sure, I was in a difficult relationship, but he did love me; yes, my writing career was stagnant, but hardly destroyed; okay, I was living in a new city where I had no friends or family, but I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people. Yet somehow, I was in a very bad place, lost inside my own scratched-up love song, dabbling in happy pills, hunger pangs, and poor decisions.

I have always been a woman of action. “Figure out what’s making you upset and change it,” I’ve said millions of times in frustration to my sister and girlfriends. “Onward and upward,” is another one of my, perhaps dismissive, “tough chick” convictions.  Living by this don’t-just-sit-there-do-something (!!) sense of resilience has helped me quit lousy jobs, move from crappy apartments, disengage from toxic friends. It’s a way of life that I’m proud of. If I don’t like the way something or someone makes me feel, I fix it.

Yet here I was—stuck. Defeated by the universe. Giving in to melancholy. Giving up on myself. I tried to make positive changes in my relationship and new environment, to play the cards I was dealt, but nothing worked. Worst of all, I couldn’t even find the spark inside to, at the very least, laugh it all off.

Then one day, disgusted by my own submissiveness to sadness, I decided to try one more thing.

I was going to cook something, which sounded quite miraculous, considering I had turned on a stove only once in my entire life (which resulted in a blazing kitchen fire) and had spent over two decades convinced that domesticity was the devil incarnate. For some reason, I was born thinking that the kitchen was reserved for blahs who read Bon Appétit and wore Banana Republic, not funky free spirits like me.

You’ll have to read the book to fully understand the road that led me into the kitchen (my boyfriend was a chef, our livelihood revolved around restaurants, my isolation was largely due to insecurities around his career), but when I did actually tie on an apron, I can confidently say everything changed.

The first dish I made was a Mac n’ Cheese by Martha Stewart. I now hear that a lot of home cooks covet this recipe, but I chose it simply because I could pronounce all the words. Of course, I made a wild mess and was completely confused by much of what the instructions said, but the meal was scrumptious. And most important, it all made me smile.

After Martha’s Mac, I started cooking and baking a lot, and feeling better and lighter each day. It was so great having these small projects—cookbook reading, ingredient gathering, garden growing—in my otherwise unsettling world.

I’d be lying if I said that cooking solved all my problems, but it certainly brought me substantial pleasure and inner calm. My life still wasn’t perfect, but I was so thankful to be emotionally back on track.

It still sort of embarrasses me to admit how much happiness the kitchen brings me; how rosemary twigs and toasted pine nuts and rack of lamb were the things to fix me in such a hurtful time in life, and that they are still the tools I turn to in my much more joyful present.

I had spent so many years identifying with bad girls and rockers and runaways, convinced that foodstuff was reserved for women who didn’t love and feel and fumble like me. But the truth is, the coolest women cook. The kitchen is a vehicle for creativity, passion, mindfulness, music, sensuality, sustenance, and … strength.

Read more from Alyssa Shelasky at apronanxiety.com.

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