This article originally appeared on VICE US.
This Is Fine. is an essay series from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Hanif Abdurraqib learns to nourish himself again after a long period of despair. Sign up here to receive a newsletter about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. on Sunday evenings.
Depending on what parts of the risotto-making process you've perfected (or not), the album you can spin all the way through while cooking may vary. And the steps of the recipe definitely require music: Something upbeat for the heating of chicken broth at the opening. A down-tempo jam as onions sizzle in a pan with the rice. A swelling ballad for the incremental adding of the broth and white wine, then the seemingly never-ending stirring of ingredients while the rice cooks and thickens.
I find it safest to put on records within the 45- to 52-minute range: Kelela’s Take Me Apart or Jody Watley’s Affairs of the Heart work best on the days I stumble over some perfunctory step, like forgetting to turn on a burner or incorrectly measuring the amount of white wine and needing to cook it out a little longer. On more focused days, I can finish right before the end of Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, or Carole King’s Tapestry. I like to cook toward a theatrical sonic exit, so if I time my risotto to Carly Simon’s Spoiled Girl just right, I can tilt the pan onto a plate while Carly is breathless, wringing all she can out of “Black Honeymoon,” the album’s final track, singing, My blood’s turned to ice, ice, ice, ice. Now I don’t feel undone.
I felt undone for a long time before I started making risotto. In the mid-2000s, eating was a burden, and cooking felt like an insurmountable, even impossible, task. An especially painful breakup carried me to the death of one friend, which carried me to the loss of another friend, which carried me to the dissolution of a friend group. Depression can dislodge a person from almost every relationship, even their relationship with necessity; depending on the season and the immovable grief haunting it, I ate only what was within arm's reach. Going outside any more than I was required to meant—I thought—that people would have to contend with my unkempt sadness, my trembling wreck of nervous energy swallowing the blocks I lived on. In the months following another funeral, I ate one Subway sandwich per day—I could take the back way to the Subway behind my apartment, cutting through an alley to avoid being seen.
I was probably never a great cook, but I was an enthusiastic one before this point in my life, particularly in my late teens and early 20s, when I made massive pots of pasta or baked casseroles for my pals sprawled on couches well beyond midnight after some show. Cooking was something I could do in service of people I loved, even when I wasn’t entirely sure if I loved myself. As those people vanished or moved on, so did my love of cooking. Eating was just a way to maneuver upright through what living I could before collapsing back into isolation. During a spring and summer when I slept all day and worked a few hours waiting tables at night, I survived on whatever the kitchen staff slid my way, simply needing to be able to make it through my shift and back home again. In the months I stocked shelves at a grocery store, I snagged anything frozen that I could throw in the oven, set, and return to later.
At the opening of 2019, I'd wriggled at least somewhat out of my years-long funk, but a casualty of that era was my taste for any food that didn't feel easily, immediately accessible. I made excuses for not liking food I hadn’t tried before, just so I wouldn’t have to potentially gain affection for it. To fall back in love with foods other than chicken fingers or haphazardly arranged sandwiches meant that I’d have to also test the limits of my constantly expanding, but still tenuous, emotional bandwidth beyond food, too—that I’d have to push myself to reconsider the various generosities I was capable of offering, and receiving.
I didn't even know what risotto was until I had a bite of it—saffron risotto, specifically—from a restaurant near my apartment in January. I resisted trying it, but was won over after being told it was “like mac and cheese, but with rice.” Rice was something that I’d eagerly written off as Not For Me, with no real logic behind it. I’d prematurely dismissed it as bland and texturally unappealing. To taste risotto was to understand that I had been doing rice incorrectly, or at least not adventurously enough. The description of this particular risotto was accurate enough, and when I learned that risotto is one of the many foods that takes on the flavor of whatever it is married to through the cooking process, I was fascinated.
In the latter half of 2019, I took to making risotto both as a tool of pleasure and as a calming mechanism, part of the new system of things I need to do to keep steady. When I told my friends that I was stockpiling risotto recipes, many of them grimaced, or lamented the famously repetitive labor of making risotto: standing still over a stove for nearly an hour, pouring stock over rice in small increments, and stirring a pattern into a pan. It is calming for me to have a simple, circular task to tend to and also get lost in. I can’t linger on my phone too long during the process. I can’t scroll through anything or be distracted by the score of a game I’d otherwise be watching. I don’t know exactly how good I am at making risotto, but I enjoy the finished product well enough. What I like most about it is how wide the margin for error is due to its long process, and the fact that risotto is so generously complementary. It makes a comfortable bed for any number of suitors: saffron and salmon, lemon and mushroom, pea and shrimp. Making risotto, I feel most like Someone Who Cooks, or someone capable, with my towel over my shoulder, stirring relentlessly, humming along to whatever soundtrack I’ve chosen for the event.
Now, on the days I’ve got my depression and anxiety reasonably managed, I throw myself into the chaos of a hectic schedule. I am reading or writing (both of which make up at least part of my job), or rushing to show up to therapy late, or taking a call that could have been an email, or replying to an email that should have been a phone call. I’ve learned to manage all of this as best as I can without tipping the scales of my mental health. I've committed to getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, cutting myself off from a desire to scroll into an endless abyss of bad news (or good jokes). If my friends live at a distance, we make time for long phone calls, just to hear each other’s voices. It has all become a part of the same ecosystem for me, one that remains on shaky ground, but is still worth continually striving to uphold.
In an attempt to reaffirm my capability for cooking, I’ve taken to the making of a food that can take nearly an hour. A food that makes a mess of a stovetop, with its multiple pots or pans, and splotches from mistimed pours of broth. A food that lingers—leaves a stain, or an ache in the wrist after prolonged stirring. There’s a burst of excitement that happens when I’m going through the processes of anything I couldn’t bring myself to do when I was stultifyingly sad, anxious, and angry. The production of the meal itself is what confirms the idea that, at least for now, I’m not who I was before. I’m someone who is patient enough to give a night over to the complicated and celebratory nature of bringing this particular dish—one I once waved off—to life.
On Thanksgiving, I made a pea risotto alone in my apartment. A triumph over the past version of myself who hid behind the locked door of a bedroom and didn’t acknowledge my own desire to eat. I prefer making it alone, or sharing it with my partner. I’m not yet so celebratory about my affection for making risotto that I’ll risk sharing it with friends. I’m also selfish in this moment; I want this new, small attempt at healing all to myself. I hope to remain in pursuit of that newness, and whatever other newnesses await. For the time being, I will take being in love with making risotto and finding the small joys bursting from labor that might seem too tedious, or too stationary, or too repetitive. The reminder that, even when I think I’m done, I’m not, not yet: The whole trick to making risotto is to slowly tend to the widening rice until what was grows thick and heavy, newly capable of withstanding the weight of companionship. What luck, as the music swells all around me, to witness that kind of blooming.
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