How cooking helped me cope with unemployment
By Margaux Eloise Stockwell
"People don’t talk about the gaps and the slow periods, probably because they’re boring, depressing, or filled with private therapeutic activities, like cooking". Margaux shares how taking things step by step, in life and in cooking, gave her a new perspective on post-uni unemployment.
"Honestly, I’ve got the time, I’m unemployed...,” I joked to people.
“#FUNemployment,” I posted on Instagram.
I threw the word out there over and over again in the hope it might boomerang back to me with an answer attached, or better still, a letter offering me employment. I was well-versed in the art of job-hunting, almost two years into my life out of university, but I had not been unemployed up to this point.
I had, however, been all of the following: underpaid, unhappy, deeply unfulfilled.
But despite this I’d also managed to stay on some sort of “track”. After finishing my degree, in a blind mix of panic and optimism, I fled from the dreaded looming possibility of moving back home to my parents’, jumped on a train to Paris and blagged my way into ill-considered job after ill-considered job. My plan (if you can call it that) was to eventually stumble into something that I happened to enjoy, and to take it from there. It goes without saying that, despite studying French and Art History (one of the least employable combinations going), finding myself unemployed was never part of the “plan”.
Not feeling like a bit of a failure when you’re unemployed is pretty much impossible...
Especially as a twenty-something in the midst of a crucial life-defining stage of morphing into your adult-self and living in an era obsessed with productivity. It’s hard to not take being unemployed personally. It’s certainly not helped by lying in bed at 10am, scrolling through social media and countless triumphant posts of professional achievements, first jobs, promotions, well-deserved holidays. Faced with a nine hour working day to fill, stewing in the anxiety of job applications, it’s easy to turn in circles: unemployed = no purpose = not valuable. I spent the first week feeling like I was on holiday, and then this was the corner I found myself backed neatly into. It’s easy, it’s passive and it’s also a waste of time.
Spending the eight to ten hour-long working day alone can do strange things to you.
For me, it went a little like this: I spent too much time on social networks while halfway through job applications and simultaneously refreshing emails. I turned to Netflix, slipping with ease into the old familiar habits of my lazy student days. I watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Then I felt guilty about watching TV so I re-read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, marvelling for a second time at the way she describes emotions and taste experiences. I felt nostalgic, and a little hungry, so I leafed through the recipe book my mum had given me when I left home. I stopped on the page entitled “Donna Hay brownies - my version”. I went out, bought the ingredients for the brownies, then made them; melting together butter and sugar and cocoa powder, stirring in flour slowly, cracking eggs and stirring, stirring, stirring, until it all came together in a deliciously rich, smooth brown paste. As I pulled the hot brownies out of the oven I felt slightly calmer than I had that morning.
Naturally I then rewatched an old episode of Simply Nigella - do you ever need a reason for Nigella? - which resulted in a batch of gooey date bars. I found myself tearing up dates and bringing them to the boil with cinnamon and water, mixing oats and seeds, raisins and cacao nibs with the blended dates and letting them do their thing in the oven for half an hour.
I made dhal and roasted vegetables - dishes I make from memory every day, but this time I took more time over them.
I made Marcella Hazan’s ragu, meandering to the butchers to buy mince, pretending to be MFK Fisher or Julia Child. Reading recipes and layering up oil and onions, carrots, celery, meat, wine, milk, nutmeg and tomatoes, I found I was actually beginning to be able to taste the time I had. Rather than scrolling through the empty hours, one thumb movement at a time and one screen at a time, I was using up each extra hour in the way I felt most at home in the gaping cavern of “time”: by making something delicious with it. For me, raised in a house where food meant love, the familiar embrace of cooking became a way for me to slow down and - to use an odious, but important expression from our zeitgeist - embrace a little “self-love” at a time when my sense of self was taking a bit of a bashing.
Cooking brought something screamingly into focus for me that had before been a little too blurry to see. Cooking relies entirely on timings: you have to be patient, not expect instant results, give every stage enough time, have the right ingredients to make your dish cook in the right way, and create the right environment for it to cook it in. After leaving university, I had gotten into the habit of looking everywhere for advice, scrutinising other people’s career paths, scrolling back through their profiles to see where they were at my age. I searched for guidance to take me to the sure and certain path to immediate success all these other people seemed to have been on.
It wasn’t until I became unemployed, two years after what would have been my “lost year”, that I finally realised what I’d been missing.
The advice I’d been given time and time again by my mum whenever I’d rung her on a lunch break in previous jobs - often despairing, sometimes tearful about my job, my career, my indecision - finally made sense. She would always respond: ‘just take it one step at a time’.
Wise friends and family members had encouraged me to set off on a path that took my fancy, reassuring me it would soon become clear whether it was the right one or not. “Just do something,” they said, “and it will lead you to something else”. I dove head-first into this advice, but I’d focused too much on the “soon” part, expecting things to move quickly, instantly, like they did in successful people’s Instagram feeds. But I was confusing quick learning with quick success. And when my unemployment gave me the time to stop and think about this advice, these words all seemed to boil down to one essential thing: time.
Obvious conclusion this may be, but it’s one many of us haven’t been given time (away from essays, dissertations, job applications, staying well, exercising, eating healthily, living life to the full, not missing out, etc.) to fully comprehend. Surrounded as we are by stories of startups founded by people our own age or younger, “Thirty under 30” lists, and influencers “having it all”, in which success is portrayed as better when quicker, younger, more effortless, it is so important to remember how key time and patience are as ingredients in the recipe.
People don’t talk about the gaps and the slow periods, probably because they’re boring, depressing, or filled with private therapeutic activities, like cooking, that mattered to the person in question. The only way I’ve come to be able to swallow, and more importantly savour, time and patience, has been to view them as essential ingredients, not only in success, but in life and happiness too. And whatever the pastime happens to be that allows you to do that, it might just protect you from the impulse to rush, and remind you every once in a while how good it is to simply take your time.
Image by Joy Molan