Fork in hand, I mashed four thawed bananas—on the advice of the internet, I’d taken to freezing them in plastic bags—into about four ounces of applesauce. Vanilla extract entered next. Before long, I was using a three-quarter cup to measure in sugar and flour, as I couldn’t find my full cup. When the oven beeped, alerting me that it had done what I directed and heated to 325, I did not scream. I did not even jump. For many during the pandemic, this kitchen scene isn’t too surprising. Banana bread is often regarded as one of the more novice-friendly recipes, particularly because it’s tough to mess up. Once I got my loaf pan into the oven, I felt unsteady. Uncertain. Though I baked frequently, the moment did not feel familiar to me. I did not feel faint. The ground wasn’t spinning. I didn’t have chest pain. I hadn’t cried in the mixing process. My secret ingredient? Lexapro.
Though I didn’t see a psychiatrist until I turned 30, anxiety had always been part of my life. My childhood and adolescence were tough; chaos at home, economic insecurity, and living in the closet do, as I have come to accept, leave lasting impressions on one’s emotional stability. From a young age, I wanted to mimic what others did to find peace. Keep a journal? On it. Hot yoga? Sure. Meditation? Sign me up (literally—there have been so many apps). In my twenties, I read countless essays and social media posts about people finding relief in cooking an elaborate meal or presenting a much-loved dessert to friends or partners. Ingredients varied, of course, but the sentiment remained the same: It’s nice to put your worries away and focus on a recipe. So, motivated with a need to act, I baked.
Dark chocolate raspberry brownies. Lemon blueberry muffins. Shortbread cookies. Vanilla cupcakes with a honey glaze. Salted peanut butter crumbles. Miniature vegan cheesecakes with a raw cashew crust. I brought brownies into a fiction workshop and while no one cared much for my short story, people portioned my brownies into napkins and slipped extras into their coat pockets. Years later, when I taught a writing workshop myself, I brought chocolate chip vegan shortbread cookies for my students. Those, too, disappeared in the seconds between their note taking and eager eye contact. What people did not see was that went into them wasn’t quite love, but rather, a yearning for it. Cooking for others was a way of showing care, sure. It was also a way to earn affection. I wasted no time on the notion that people might like me simply for me. So, hungry to be needed, I baked.
Watching people eat didn’t bring me relief. But watching birds eat did—even in the very worst months, the ones before I finally asked for and received medication. In the end, it was the quiet action of returning to be fed that warmed me to my own efforts, not the verbal thanks and recipe requests from my human peers.
I moved to the south during the first summer of the pandemic, unmedicated and with the nerves of a splintered edge. As I packed kitchen equipment and tried to (safely) donate non-expired food, I left friends and a life in Washington, D.C. without the full chance to say goodbye. Living down south for the first time in my life, in a city apartment nestled in a tree-laden neighborhood, I was lonely. So I bought a bird feeder and an enormous bag of seed. I was in for about fifty dollars, and, though I had never taken to birds before, a new expansion of both anxiety and relief.
Lucky enough to work remotely, I stationed myself on my new porch, faced summer-green trees, and monitored each and every movements of birds I had never before thought to identify. I took thousands of blurred close-ups of common birds: house finches, tufted titmice, cardinals, nuthatches. I wanted to connect with my friends virtually, sure. In the period before I started Lexapro, I wanted to prove what I was seeing to myself. Like with baking, simply following a guide online wasn’t enough to settle my nerves; I read the height, shape, color of a male cardinal, red and obvious, and didn’t believe my take until a friend responded to my dozen of photos with her absolute certainty. The latent sentiment in her patient texts: Duh.
Antidepressants helped me trust my gut in the kitchen, to both slow down and take risks. Feeding myself became a little easier, and so did feeding others without expectation. After all, birds couldn’t exactly tell me their seed preference, and I couldn’t make occasional visitors—the ever elusive pileated woodpecker, the dignified pair of American goldfinches, the barred owl—come back on a schedule, no matter how many places I shifted their feeder or how sculpted I stayed upon hearing a branch rustle. On my porch, I remained in one place and, for one of the first times in my life, gave my body the chance to slow down enough for my mind to understand it. My body survived years of rushing: to work, to the social services office, to the bus, to the library, to sleep, to eat, to do it all again. When I settled into a full-time job with a salary and benefits, I assumed my nerves would follow suit. Instead, I found myself sweating and jittering outside of my apartment, convinced I’d left the stove burner on. It turns out my brain needed more than a little help to understand my body is no longer starving for rest.
I still obsess over food waste, medication or not. Raised by my mother and grandmother, we were always low on money. Food stamps settled most grocery bills, and when I was a teenager, I worked at a McDonald’s to help round out rough budget corners. After school—where I ate lunch for free, thanks to the school’s subsidized lunch program—I would heat Lean Cuisines and Cup Noodles in the microwave. One for me, one for whichever adult was home. When I walked to the library to do homework in the years we did not have the internet, I stopped in at the 7-Eleven to buy myself a slushie and Reese’s for the seven mile round-trip journey.
It’s hard to feel full on a food stamps budget, and even harder to justify ingredients or whole dishes that might not go over well. What if the flavor profile is off? What if it burns? What if I don’t have the right pan? Even medicated, these questions rest on my brain’s surface. In the kitchen, plenty of cooks embrace substitutions. On bad days, I Google how many mashed bananas replaced a cup of oil more than I’d like to admit. (It’s three-fourth a cup.)
With the pandemic, I haven’t had groups around to sample my baked goods. Still, the result is probably indistinguishable from my anxiety bake-offs. After all, my recipe sources are the same. Ingredients aren’t much different. My cooking equipment hasn’t changed. The only difference is the way I feel. Mind you, I still can’t meditate or run a mile. Knocks on the front door still make me shudder. The difference comes in those small moments: I choose a recipe and it goes pretty okay. When I measure vanilla by the teaspoon, I don’t hate myself quite as much. I substitute an ingredient. My stomach doesn’t turn sour. I look away from the oven to check the feeder. Birds hover and sit and eat and, I like to believe, enjoy this temporary home. The paranoia that my neighborhood might burn down because I turned away from my stove to wash my hands is a fleeting image, not an hour-long agony. For now, that’s more than enough to satiate me.
Marissa Higgins is a lesbian journalist and recipient of a D.C. Arts & Humanities Fellowship. Her nonfiction appears in the Best American Food Writing 2018 (originally in Catapult), Guernica, Salon, NPR, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her fiction appears, or is forthcoming, in The Florida Review, Lost Balloon Mag, X-Ray Literature, and others. She is working on a novel.