Today is a thank you note, a love letter of sorts, an expression of gratitude for my job. For the past 2 and a half years I have worked one of the best jobs I’ve ever had: being a member of staff in a cookery school, however on Sunday I will complete my final shift before I move onto pastures new. This job is, and will remain, incredibly significant for me for a number of reasons: not only is it the longest job I’ve ever managed to keep (working as an actor involves a lot of short term stints in pubs and cafes, etc.) but my colleagues have become dear friends and a as a group I think we all know that we are something that only comes along once in a while: a great team. However I owe more to my job than being lucky enough to have met a fantastic bunch of people, it has also completely changed how I think and feel about food and eating – plus it has taught me how to cook!
When I first got the job I think the majority of people who knew me best snorted in derision. Me, Danielle, working in a cookery school? I was the last person they’d expect. It wasn’t that I had a reputation for being a terrible cook, I hadn’t even got that far to find out because I simply couldn’t bothered with cooking. Sure I knew how to work an oven but pretty much everything I ate or prepared myself to eat was processed foods, things that came in a packet that you didn’t need to think about; just pop in the oven, wait twenty minutes and voila, dinner is served. This was ideal for me in multiple ways, one of them being what I’ve just mentioned I purely had zero interest, but also from the age of 20 – 26 I was pretty much single. My feeling was that even if I did have the inclination to cook, what was the point doing so for one person? Even though I did live with my mum during this period the pair of us did our own thing when it came to mealtimes, rarely would we sit down and eat the same thing together.
However probably most importantly of all, the reason I stuck to packaged foods was the safety and security of it. What I mean by is that is the food labelling helped me maintain control. I knew exactly how many calories were in what, I could scour the shelves to find the products with the least amount, avoid the high calorie options and organize my day by knowing exactly what I was eating.
For the majority of my adult life food and eating has been all about numbers. Taste, flavour, instinct or even the science behind food weren’t as much of a priority as was making sure what was on my plate was in accordance of the number of calories that would be acceptable for me to consume. This was particularly so when I was anorexic. I used to weigh my food – everything. If I had half a portion of filled pasta out a packet it had to be exactly half, the sauce would need to be exactly 100g, the veg would need to be exactly 80g per portion. If I didn’t weigh out every single element to my meal I would be anxious, unsettled and obsessing over the horror in case I’d eaten over my daily calorie limit. If I was in a restaurant I’d scan frantically for the option I thought would be the least fattening and when my plate would be placed before me I would stare at it and rapidly begin to estimate how many calories it contained before I could eat any of it. I didn’t just think of food in numbers, I saw it in numbers as well and this is a habit I have found difficult to break.
Even when I recovered from anorexia shortly after I turned 20 years old, I still counted calories. Of course it wasn’t the tiring, stressful task as it had been because I was so liberated by being able to eat 2000 calories a day, every day if I wanted, however the liberation of being free of calorie counting altogether was nowhere to be seen, nor the mere thought of it entertained. I had imposed upon myself a self-taught military regime way of thinking where calorie counting was my safety net. Not only was it scary to think of letting go of this habit but I came to realise that even when I wanted to be free of calorie counting, it wasn’t going to happen overnight. In fact it’s taken at least a few years to break down this automatic response within myself whenever I am faced with making a decision over food and eating to not start adding my daily intake. Sometimes it was completely subconscious: I would ‘wake up’ in the midst of counting calories wondering what the hell I was doing and internally reprimand myself to stop.
The obsession over calories also dedicated the type of thing I would eat on a regular basis where my motivation would more often than not be finding the most I could eat for the fewest amount of calories. Sometimes this was because I wanted to save the extra calories for alcohol, or because I was post binge and had to restrict myself for the next few days in order to balance it out, or for no reason in particular other than because this was what I was used to doing. It was not uncommon for me to eat big platefuls of just cooked vegetables so I would feel full. Full was the objective. Not satisfaction, only security that I knew I hadn’t overeaten and happiness if I’d manage to under eat.
Cut to my very first shift in a cookery school and I remember one of first things I was told to do: ‘You must taste everything’. This was an eye opener in itself. The dish demonstrated had a sauce full of cream and butter, the potatoes were drizzled in olive oil, these were all ingredients that were a knee jerk reflect response within myself to say no, I’m not allowed that, too fattening, too high in calories – almost to the point of having a fear of eating these particular foods. However here I was being told that it was important to try every dish. It was encouraged, it was allowed, hell, it was practically mandatory. Yet it made sense because how on earth was I supposed to find out what my palate truly is unless I taste everything and find out for myself what I like– would I add more garlic, more chilli? Less chilli, different herbs? Being able to taste so many different foods that I would normally avoid or consider forbidden was breaking down some sturdy barriers that had been in place for a long time.
What else I discovered was that cooking with and eating full fat ingredients isn’t going to necessarily make you ‘fat’. In fact I’ve come to realise is that when I use double cream, full fat butter, cheese, etc. when cooking I end up feeling more satisfied. There’s more flavour, dishes taste better in my opinion therefore I’m far less likely to keep hankering for something more after I’ve eaten. Whereas before if I’d eaten just a plate of vegetables, I would be restless, and obsessing over if I could anything else to satisfy my urge and craving for something better to eat…which more often than not resulted in a binge.
However now, I have learned to cook and I love it! Sure, I’ll always learning and I’ve no doubt Future Husband would be the first to say that sometimes my creations don’t always turn out successfully, but yet the passion and interest is there which is something I’ve never had until 2 and a half years ago. My fridge looks rather different today by its complete absence of processed, pre-packaged meals and I love cooking a dinner for the two of us from scratch. Sometimes it’s even quite therapeutic just to be alone in my kitchen creating. And by cooking meals from scratch I am not consumed by calorie counting because there are no labels to dictate what exactly is in a portion. Therefore instead of relying on a label telling me how much I can eat, I now trust my own head and body to decide how much I put on my plate, how much I need and when I’m full, which is a much more peaceful way of living.
So to my job I have to say thank you and to the people I have had the privilege to work with, you know who you are and believe me I am so grateful from the bottom of my heart for your friendships, laughter and all those pairs of ears who don’t mind listening to a good whinge now and again. Collectively you’ve all made me a happier, healthier, more balanced person and having such a great job with wonderful workmates whom I’m proud to call my friends really helped me through some tough times. You’ve given me skills that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and put me on track to a new stage in my life. Thank you. Forever grateful. Thank you.