My Señora Era: Cooking Childhood Comfort Foods Improved My Mental Health

During the second half of my third year of college, my mental health was at its lowest

cooking with nostalgia

Photo courtesy of Laysha Macedo

During the second half of my third year of college, my mental health was at its lowest. My anxiety and depressed moods came and went too often that I was concerned as to why it was happening. I had experienced these feelings before  but never to that extent. I found myself distancing myself from my family and no longer enjoying things that I used to love like writing. Everything from getting to school to waking up in the morning became a chore for me that I dreaded. Ultimately, school and work fell through the cracks only exacerbating the way I was already feeling. I was desperate for an “answer” as to why this was happening again and for a “solution.” That was all I could think about then, and now in retrospect, I understand that the healing process and addressing one’s mental health is much more holistic and takes time.

After talks with my friends and my therapist, the question “How long has it been since you’ve seen your family?” came up several times. It made me start realizing not only that it had been months of me not speaking to my family on the phone but it had also been a while since I visited home in Northern California after going back to school in Los Angeles. In my freshman year, I called as often as I could and sometimes visited on weekends along with holiday breaks. 

It hit me one day that it was perhaps the fact that all sense of familiarity was out of sight for so long that all these new experiences I was having from settling into my first apartment to conflicts with others were not balanced out by the grounding that comes from engaging with the familiar.

Although I was isolating myself from my family I still wanted to feel a closeness to them in small ways. What first came to mind was my mom’s cooking, the thought of all the home-cooked meals I had grown up with brought me a great sense of comfort so I started cooking. With the cooking also came the desire to recreate the atmosphere my mom had set up when she was cooking. I began filling my kitchen with the foods needed to make all the meals that in my mind were essential to my upbringing: corn flour, tomatoes, corn, cotija cheese, serrano and poblano peppers, tortillas, and many others. 

cooking with nostalgia

Photos courtesy of Laysha Macedo

There is nothing more nostalgic to me than the fragrance of serrano peppers and tomatoes roasting on the stove. Despite the fumes, that scent is unlike any other and was necessary for me to bring myself back to an easier time in my life. As I roasted everything over a piece of aluminum foil, just like my mom, I played Maná and all the cumbias my parents love to play weekend mornings as my mom made fresh salsa.  I also wanted to teach myself how to make tortillas and memelas despite feeling a little intimidated by attempting to make them from scratch. Through trial and error, I managed to get to a point where my tortillas and memelas weren’t stiff. It felt almost surreal to me that as I was making the dough, it was me and not my mom feeling the dough in my hands, forming them into balls, and then flattening them. Just as I was feeling connected to my mom, I also found myself feeling all the women in my family around me. As I was attempting to narrow the distance between me and my immediate family, I was simultaneously bringing myself closer to my family in Mexico who I have only seen in person once or twice in my life. 

With my attempts at arroz con leche, chilaquiles, and budin, I found myself slowly reconnecting with my family. Phone calls to ask about recipes turned into calls just to catch up and eventually I was able to get out of the feeling of needing to place distance between my family and myself. Besides my own struggles with mental health, other issues between me and my family—fatphobia within the family and marianismo— discouraged me from talking to them but through my journey in cooking I’ve found peace in knowing that I cannot change my parents’ mind on a lot of things and nor should I spend my energy trying to do that. While cooking to heal, I realized that I am done with the constant bickering that comes with visiting home. For instance, the prevalence of diet culture in my family has affected me and was the start of many arguments. Now, instead of fighting back like I used to—which was a source of stress and a blow to my confidence—I simply take a stand by forming boundaries. There are certain things that are so far ingrained that they are difficult to unlearn and although we keep having the same conversation on those topics, things never really change. When I did try, I ended up burnt out and wanting to distance myself from my family which only hurt both of us. 

Prior to being more intentional and meaningful with cooking, I only cooked for practicality, solely to fulfill my most basic need. Now, I approach cooking as a way to cope with my own struggles by grounding myself in what I am most familiar with and long for.  Cooking has provided me with a sense of fulfillment as I find myself being able to recreate flavors that I feel so close to me while also honing useful skills. From gathering ingredients to hearing the sizzle as the food is searing. the time I get alone in the kitchen is something that allows me to focus on the present and not focus as much any negative feelings or anxiety-provoking thoughts. After this experience, I know cooking is something I can go to when I need a moment to ground myself and cope with whatever I am going through while also connecting to my family and my roots.

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