It was a few days after Halloween, and the Butterfingers had already disappeared. A bowl of Tootsie Rolls and lollipops sat on a shelf in the meeting room, resigned in their plain, wrinkled wrappers, and waiting for a desperate staffer. When a colleague floated the last candy bar above her desk, offering it with some reluctance, I declined. But the suggestion of candy pulled an intense craving out of the dark periphery of my subconsciousness and into the bright fluorescent lights of the office. Charged by a primal impulse, I immediately abandoned my work to locate a candy bar—any candy bar, so long as it was chewy and covered in chocolate.
The craving only magnified as the days ticked by. A week later, the day after the election was an emotional one for everybody at work. I arrived to half the staff sitting in dark outfits and dark moods in front of their computers. I remembered the chocolate croissant I had picked up on my way to work, and passed my boss twisting something anxiously in her mouth. I paused at her desk. “Stress-eating,” she answered matter-of-factly. “Is that one of the lollipops from the Tootsie Roll bowl?” I asked in horror. She and I share a love of good food and cooking, but after a lunchtime trip to the grocery store, usually inspired by a deadline or super-depressing news, we could occasionally be spotted at our desks feasting indiscriminately on popcorn, chips, store-bought cookies, chocolate bars—anything greasy or smudgy that threatened both clean clothes and pretension. She nodded, and an image of that cheerless bowl scrolled into mental view. I contemplated its possibilities for a moment—and felt gratitude.
Food consoles us when we’re down and out, when we’re feeling raw and exposed and need something warm and hearty to fill our tender bellies. I feel bad for people who don’t let themselves be soothed by food when life has stripped away other comforts. But I’ve learned that when we’re vulnerable, when we’re unsure about the world and our place in it, food is the way back home—through our hands, into our mouths, inside our bodies, lighting emotions, thoughts, memories, sensations into untarnished awareness. There have been times in my life when anxiety gripped my guts so tight I couldn’t eat more than a few bites, times when my body lay like a heavy, heaving mass unable to take an easy breath.
But no moment is filled with more grace or beauty than when I lean into a bite of food so completely that every sense is awakened by the ingredients within it. By eating, we’re celebrating both our vulnerability as animals and our powers of innovation and agency as a species. Even junk food, an easy target for criticism, cannot be banned from an experience of gratitude when it relieves a little pain in the short term.
Food consoles us when we’re down and out, when we’re feeling raw and exposed.
So Donald Trump would be our president, I thought as I sat at my desk and drew my croissant out of the bag. It was not my first choice—a blueberry-and-lemon curd turnover had caught my eye the week before, but it usually sold out before midmorning—when I approached the bakery cart still bleary-eyed and foggy-headed. But with its chiseled square of dark chocolate centered within the architecture of thin, buttery layers, it did lift my spirits that dark morning as its flavors lingered in my mouth. I got to look forward to lunch, as well: At my request, my partner had labored over a Dutch oven on election night to cook us shepherd’s pie, filling it with beef and vegetables stewed in broth and port. The softness of the broiled mashed potatoes layering the top blanketed me in reassurance. And that night I had baked, and eaten, dark-chocolate cupcakes with rich, chocolate buttercream frosting beaten from egg whites and sour cream, feeling not one ounce of guilt as the Pennsylvania results shifted and I needed something to do besides wring my hands.
Since well after Election Day, I have couched my grief in meals of macaroni and cheese, blended with gruyere, cheddar, and parmesan and topped with breadcrumbs rolled in butter and garlic; in roasted whole chicken with crisp skin and thick herb sauce reduced and caramelized from fat and sweetness; and in more than one—but I won’t say how many—homemade mozzarella-and-salted salami pizzas baked from balls of dough cathartically pulled and stretched and flattened into rough, hopeful circles.
Last week, a friend posted on Facebook: “OK, yes, my dinner last night was mostly chocolate. Yes, I’m making paella for breakfast this morning. It’s been a week.”
I laughed, but I also teared up at the sentiment, which I will remember during Thanksgiving as I eat food cooked and served by my family and me.
Times are hard right now, but at least by eating well and perhaps cooking with more intimacy and gratitude, we can be gentle with our emotions and trust the world just a little bit more.
Erin Sagen is a freelancer and former associate editor at YES! She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability.