The Things We Believe About Ourselves

I was reading this interview with Samin Nosrat, the host of a wonderful cooking show called Salt Fat Acid Heat, when I felt a switch flip in the back of my head. The “click” was almost audible. It was a shift in how I viewed myself in relationship to food and to cooking, and had done for much of my life.

Food hasn’t ever really been easy for me. I was a picky child, and certain flavours and textures would trigger a visceral negative response. Mushrooms. Fatty meat. Caraway seed. Raisins. Perfectly good, healthy foods that I couldn’t bear to eat. My family wasn’t well off, and eating well was one of our biggest priorities. My mother went to enormous effort to make sure that I had good food to eat — often sacrificing other things so that her child could have the healthy meals that had been completely unavailable to us back in food-shortage-stricken 1980s Poland. Good food was sacred in my household, and I choked down or creatively and secretly disposed of things I couldn’t stand, rather than throw my parent’s hard-won gifts back in their faces. Food was love, and being cooked for made me feel cared for, but the act of eating was often stressful.

In my 20s, I was diagnosed with a digestive illness that immediately took a bunch of my favourite foods off the table forever. No more gluten. No more dairy or beef. This at a time when I would revel in baking fresh bread, cracking open its still-warm crust, and eating it in chunks I’d slathered in butter. A powerful creature comfort was gone in an instant. I adapted, eventually, though baking has never really been the same. Going out to a restaurant now makes me anxious as hell if it’s not one of the few where I’m already a regular, or a chain I’ve vetted thoroughly. Will there be anything I can eat? Will it be something other than an $18 salad that leaves me hungry in an hour? Will the staff take my restrictions seriously, or mock me for being a fussy hippie or fad dieter? Will I make things awkward for my friends by asking to go somewhere else or being less-than-enthusiastic about the cool new place they’ve been dying to try?

I’d also struggled to gain weight my entire life, partly because I was sick and didn’t know it, and partly because I avoided food when I was stressed. It didn’t necessarily feel deliberate or conscious. I’d just happen not to eat for 8-hour stretches, getting lightheaded from low blood sugar and trashing my mood and energy levels while I hyperfocused on a work task or school project. It still happens. I’m drinking a protein shake as I write this, deep into the recovery from an accidental and sudden weightloss last month, when depression and stress got the better of me and I just never managed to eat enough while teaching martial arts 3-4 days a week and powerlifting 2 days a week. Eating enough is hard, and trying to eat well or in ways I enjoy has felt like a distraction.

See, somewhere in 25 years of fucked up eating habits and a complicated relationship to food, I’d internalized the idea that I didn’t deserve to enjoy cooking or eating. I wanted to like eating, but it just wasn’t in the cards for someone as picky and needy as me. I had to be happy with whatever I could get. And cooking? Well.

A person I loved once told me, in front of others, that I didn’t “cook”, so much as “prepare food”. They meant that I was an indifferent, careless cook who was perfectly capable of assembling a meal, but didn’t do it with any of the skill or flair that we consider integral to good cooking. My cooking had no joy, no art, and no soul.

I believed them, and I started wearing that statement like armour. It was easier to not give a fuck about what I was eating. To focus on getting enough calories together onto a plate that I wouldn’t fall over from exhaustion that day, assemble it whatever way was simplest, and get on with things. I let any love I might have for the process die because someone told me it had never existed in the first place. Never mind that some of my favourite childhood memories were of cooking with my parents; of them showing me their family recipes and sharing techniques; of us screwing up together, or finally solving a tricky baking puzzle; of the smell of potato pancakes and the excitement when my dad first let me help him make them, or the pleasure of watching the weird little drop dumplings that I never learned the English name for bob around in boiling water. Or of my cooking class in high school with its cocoa-stained handouts that I still have in a folder somewhere, preserving simple cookie and brownie recipes that I haven’t been able to eat for years, but that still mean something to me.

I crushed that all down and pushed it aside, and took on the mantle of the indifferent, lazy “preparer of food”. I told it to other people as a funny joke. “Oh no, I’m no good at cooking. In fact, I don’t really cook at all!” I believed it.

And somehow that belief survived the unraveling of the relationship that birthed it. It survived my slow realization that this person might love me, but they did not like me or respect me. That many of the things they’d told me about myself, and done to me, were cruel and deeply unfair. It survived me naming some of what happened to me in that relationship as “abuse”, and realizing that the way they routinely put me down, humiliated, and punished me weren’t reflections of my profound, unfixable, flaws, but the markers of a deeply unhealthy dynamic that I needed to escape. It survived therapy. It survived new relationships that showed me what unconditional love actually looked like. It survived the slow awakening of my belief that I was a pretty okay person, actually, and was worth something to others even if I disagreed with them or made a mistake.

Until I watched a cooking show on Netflix.

The foundation had probably been laid before then, by all of the changes I listed above. By my growing sense of self-worth and my willingness to challenge what I’d learned when I was younger and less sure of my own value (or, rather, sure that I had none). In any case, it was the show, and the article I read afterwards, that actually did it.

The thing about Nosrat is that she absolutely exudes the belief that anyone can cook well, and take pleasure in it. This faith underpins her hosting and her entire teaching approach. Food is good, she shows and tells her audience in a million different ways. Food is good and cooking for others is a profound and simple joy that is available to everyone. Here, let me show you. See how much you’re capable of?

The day I finished watching her series, I tried out a pulled pork recipe a friend had sent me months before. It was the most delicious thing I’d tasted in ages, and I’ve made it three times since and shared it with my parents, bringing them something new and delicious just like I had as a teenager, sharing the cookies I’d learned to make in school. I was deeply proud of food I’d made, and turned it into a gift. I could feel a small shift happening, but I didn’t really know what it was yet.

In the interview I linked at the start of this post, Nosrat talks about how much you can learn from frying an egg:

“There are so many lessons involved in frying an egg right that once you know how to do that, you can apply that same knowledge to so many other delicate things you have to cook quickly. For example, I don’t think you need to use a non-stick pan, but if you have one, you could use that to fry your eggs. Otherwise, you have your beautiful cast iron, or some other carbon-steel pan that you have really well seasoned to be non-stick. Yet, if you crack a cold egg into a cold pan, it will stick, and by the time it’s loosened itself off, the yolk is hard. You start to learn, “Oh, I need to preheat my pan.” That’s a really important thing to know for basically anything that you’re ever going to fry.

Another really important thing is if you want to make it in butter — which I like, I like a buttery egg — your pan can’t be too hot, ’cause the minute you add your butter, it’ll start turning into brown butter. It’s just about understanding how to pay attention to the temperature. [That] will be the thing that ultimately helps you get the egg that you want. I like an over-easy egg, so that involves a little bit of a wrist flip. If you’re learning how to do a wrist flip, then that’s another skill you’re getting […] There’s so much information that you can use every step of the way while making any food. Even if it seems like the simplest thing that you’ve done a thousand times. If you learn to pay attention to the sounds, and the smells, and the way it feels, and the temperature of the pan, there’s something that you can take away and will help you be a better cook in everything else that you make.”

I got to the end of that section, and realized that I knew how to cook, and cook well. I thought about all of the skills I’d picked up in over a decade of “preparing food”, about all of the things I’d made that were simple and boring by some people’s standards, but that made me and the people I cooked for happy. The switch flipped.

I realized that I’d been lying to myself again. That I was still shutting down a part of who I was in order to fit into the worldview of someone who hadn’t been in my life for most of a decade. That I was carrying their beliefs inside myself and overwriting my own, for no real reason except that it was still easier to believe that I was broken than to do the work of living the way I wanted to, even in small ways.

All of us carry these kinds of beliefs inside ourselves. They often come from what other people have told us is true — whether those are people we were close with, teachers or other authority figures we’ve had — or what our culture has to say about people like us. I’m bad at math. I can’t do sports. I’m not creative. I don’t know how to talk about feelings. I’ll never learn how to do that. I’m a bad partner. A couch potato. Stupid. Lazy. We carry them without questioning their reality, because we internalized them at a time when we needed to believe them, whether because we needed to trust the person that told us, or needed to maintain the integrity of the worldview they supported.

Some of them might even be true. Or at least close enough to pass a cursory inspection. But what if they’re not? What happens if we let ourselves believe that we’re more than we thought we were? Or that we can become more?

This isn’t just about cooking and bad ex-partners. This is about life and learning and teaching. To shoehorn it into the context of my work and the subject matter at the core of this blog, it’s about the beliefs we bring to our martial arts and self defense classes that determine the limits of what we can let ourselves learn. It’s about what we hear and see our students carrying into the classroom. It’s in the roots of the “I can’t”s and “I won’t”s that can look a lot like laziness or obstinacy from the outside.

The things we believe about ourselves have the power to shape reality. They circumscribe how we relate to the world and what we will and will not do. Shouldn’t we at least make sure that they’re true?