A telltale tightness in my chest reappeared again this morning. Fear bubbled up and lodged in my throat until the pressure inside me had nowhere to go and demanded I lay flat to meet it. I knew I desperately needed to break the spiraling trend of restlessness, worry, overconsumption of discouraging news, and endless snacking.
No wonder I found myself in my kitchen right before midnight gingerly extracting a brown butter carrot cake out of the oven. In the age of microwaveable cookies, it may seem annoyingly tedious to prepare all the elements of a cake that calls for “poaching carrot strips in simple syrup to create abstract roses for decoration.”
And yet, I found peace in completely immersing myself in browning butter, shredding carrots, and toasting pecans. In the absence of a kitchen stand mixer, I beat the eggs and sugar by hand for thirty minutes until the batter was as thick and smooth as drowsy caramel. I danced around my temperature indicator-less oven, thermometer and timer in hand, coaxing it to cooperate. I learned how to create a custard for homemade cream cheese buttercream and improvised my only cake pan into a turntable for icing. Yes, my snail’s pace meant it took more than five hours before I could enjoy a bite. But today was the first time all week that I didn’t grab my phone every hour to mindlessly refresh news pages. So, maybe I can set new normals. Maybe I can be both still and fed.
Today, I cooked to affirm my belonging. Jollof rice holds an outsized role in my cultural imagination because I’ve never successfully replicated it despite growing up eating it almost every week. I know food is not some unshakeable mark of identity, but this consistent failure fed into my insecurities that I wasn’t Ghanaian enough, that I hadn’t internalized enough cultural knowledge to pass down to loved ones.
So this time, I compiled notes from several different conversations with my mother (a card-carrying member of the “no recipe” club), and pieced together a twenty-step guide. As I began frying chopped onions with tomatoes and spices, I was surprised by how much I did instinctively know—how the tomato stew should resemble a saffron red as opposed to turmeric, how to select the best knobs of pungent ginger. I resisted the urge to preemptively open the steaming pot of rice, and my trust was rewarded by a pot of jeweled grains. I want to learn to be more patient with my feelings of belonging, to realize that in the absence of perfection, I can still move toward authenticity.
When I entered the kitchen today, a wave of forgotten memories flooded me at the same time as the scent of frying plantain. All of a sudden, I recalled a preteen me contentedly hauling cookbooks home from the library. I remembered tagging pages and logging my favorites into a special notebook organized by season, before annotating each entry with the page numbers of complementary side dishes. I saw my mother’s bemused smile as I swept through the kitchen, convinced I needed to create my own signature cookie recipe. It dawned on me: I’ve always been this way! Staying at home has simply helped me rediscover a long untended part of me; a part of me that is satisfied in what my friend Kate calls “doing one thing, and doing it well.” As I chop, stir, and season, those memories hold on to me stronger than anxiety.
In a time when we are learning to find meaning beyond efficiency, I take solace in slowly unearthing a part of me that has survived past challenges to manifest itself now. And I wonder what other parts of me (and of us) are surprisingly alive, despite everything. For today, I place a marinade in the fridge, ready to nourish my small hope for tomorrow.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.