I’ve been cooking with citrus and lemon a lot recently. A quick squeeze added green vegetables, oven-cooked fish, yoghurt dips: will it do add anything good? we don’t know, but let’s do it anyway, as it makes me feel like a freewheeling tv chef.
The squeezing and sauté-ing and chopping has made up large, salted chunks of my days in the past few weeks, time when I would otherwise have been seeing friends or speaking French. Preparing meals is a mixture of precise technique and instinct, and both take up space in a mind that twists and turns. Feeling sad? Cook. Experiencing nameless dread? Bake. Missing friends? Lay the table.
Eating may be an essential act of nutrition, but it’s also an effective opportunity for procrastination. You can hide the fact that you’re avoiding necessary tasks under the hunter-gather guise of ‘providing for the family’. The tasks I’ve been avoiding are largely French, and fall into the subcategory of Online Exams. Last week – you’ve guessed it – was end of term exam week at the ENS.
Online exams are not nutritious, and they are not an essential or loving form of nourishment. Although language learning is also a mixture of methodical application and intuition, its weight comes heavier than a mayo-loaded potato wedge. Language study is a time machine and a boat: it takes you back to the country, across time and across the sea. Sitting down to complete the set devoirs, I would feel like i’d eaten an undercooked mussel, because I longed to be in Lyon again – before all of this. And just as dusty curry powder is a poor substitute for fresh coriander and cumin seeds, so those dry lists of vocabulary (pierre: roche, gravelle, bloc) consumed alone, and without the seasoning of life abroad, leave a certain biliousness in the stomach.
Reading and writing may be all right in a sunny mood, but on a duller day such activities force you into grating analytical mode, as the mind drifts from the questions on the page to interrogation of the surroundings. Like I was in some sadly and strangely personal auction, I felt my zest for life sapping away: Going, Going, Gone!
It takes a lot of energy to analyse and to be analysed, and frankly it feels a lot easier to return to stirring and slicing, to let the stickiness of slow-cooked onion to push out The Bad Thoughts with Nice Shallot Reflections.
So life is hard at the moment. But whenever I feel down, I just take out the grater, with an orange or a lemon, and add the zest back in. Everything feels a little brighter dotted with the colours of coral and dandelion .