I discovered the therapeutic benefits of ‘breaking bread’ when I was seven years old. My great grandma (Nana) would normally spend her time playing cards with me, which I adored. We chatted and pondered as we played. When I lost her attention to her knitting circle, I asked if I could invite them all to a tea party.
My grandmother (Gabby), considered too young for the circle, was happy to help me with it. She said ‘yes’ to my idea. I found a solution to my sense of isolation and loss through my love of food, folk and fun. I also learned that asking for help, and finding a way to join in, is how we build a sense of interconnection. This inspired my psychodynamic way of working, which I have termed kitchen therapy: an exploration of our relationship with food, in both talking and cooking sessions. It is a holistic medium for healing and nurturing the whole Self* using Mother Nature as divine guide.
An attachment informed practice
In Buddhist philosophy, ‘attachment’ refers to our addictions; whereas in psychotherapy, we use it to refer to our caregiving relationships. Addiction is something that belongs to me, attachment is someone that I belong with. In a materialistic world orientated toward machine time, we are losing the relational aspect of feeding ourselves; focusing on the product of what we eat, rather than the process of how. But, as the happy nursing couple knows, as milk fills a belly, love fills a being. Feeding the whole self is not only a physical experience but also a metaphysical one. What I found tucked in the cucumber sandwiches amongst Nana’s knitting circle is a mutual need for attachment nutrition. That tea party planted the seed for kitchen therapy: a delicious solution to my psyche’s need to feel part of the party and to belong.
All in good time
Many moons later, that seed took root. In the same term I began teaching people to cook in community kitchens, I began to train as a therapist. As these two endeavours fired together, they wired together and their mutuality appeared. I had unwittingly called my first cookery course, ‘Learn to Love Cooking’, on the basis that pleasure is the good cook’s secret spice. Developmental learning from Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters,1 framed my relational approach to cooking: loving a dish into being; noticing its unique scent, glimmer and shine; welcoming each ingredient into the interdependent whole. This echoes the ‘maternal gaze’, where an infant and carer’s eyes lock into a look responsible, no less, for wiring the brain, into parent and person. Love really does matter.
Food for the soul
Whilst not everyone finds cooking therapeutic, and many have a troubled relationship with food, it can symbolise the place where body and soul meet – amidst that ‘maternal gaze’. The steam from the earthly cooking pot reaches towards the spiritual skies. It is where our basic hunger instinct for food, and higher religious instinct for love, unite. Winnicott described early feeding as introducing and reintroducing the baby’s psyche and soma to each other, creating a sense of ‘indwelling’ as well as of belonging within the group.2 Kitchen therapy listens to the messages relayed within the brain-matrix between gut, heart and mind. The way we cook and eat provides, on the one hand, an assessment tool that relates to our inner world and, on the other, a treatment tool that releases a sense of connection and belonging.
The French author, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote about gastronomy, said, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.’3 Nature has endowed humans with the ability to cook. The way we feed ourselves is how we become ourselves. In the words of Richard Wrangham, ‘cooking makes us human.’4 Our ability to make and manipulate fire takes us into a new relationship with nature, wherein we consume, corral and coordinate external resources. But, most importantly, we cannot manage this alone, we are like warrior ants in this regard. From cradle to grave, food is an attachment vehicle. Its form changes as we grow, but the feeling it generates remains the same. The word ‘company’, from the Latin con-panis, with bread, is a reminder of this. The campfire which warms, protects and invites us, symbolises our candlelit need for connection. The hunting, making and sharing that food requires, affirms and rewards our interdependence. Mother Nature does not make mistakes in her menu plans. They contain the spiritual nutrition of connection. Food is love.
Next in this issue
Since our stories around food help us to understand ourselves, I use our relationship with it as an embodied pathway to the inner world, and our shared humanity. As meaning making, social creatures, our stories, both as people and as a species, begin around the campfire cauldron of our earliest meals. Our first experience of alchemy is also our first experience of story, time and empowerment. We become aware of the before (raw ingredients), present (cooking) and after (eating). In imbibing the food that we have prepared, we become the change we seek. The elixir is within.
For Freud, dreams represent the royal road to the unconscious5 where we somehow swim in the same waters, both unique and universal. Food feels more direct. There is something calming about the practicality of cooking. It encourages people to share their thoughts as they chop. Like a dream, a meal carries a message to explore. Memories are elicited and insights emerge. Food is first and foremost a mode of communication and connection. This is the basis of kitchen therapy.
Perhaps a calm, efficient client who is stuck in therapy, is also a keen bread maker. Asking them to bring something they’ve made to the session could allow fantasy and reality to meet. Imposter and good enough syndromes are unleashed when baking as, however good that bread is, it cannot match the expectations that reach into our childhood failings. The inner critic, that harsh super ego many of us recognise, has entered the room on a plate between us. To me, the bread is a gift for both psyche and soma. The power balance shifts, and we can journey together into an inner world where superego anxiety can be metabolised into a meal. Not just in that session but the ones after, the way a person makes and breaks bread (physically or symbolically) feeds into a transformative understanding of our human experience. The active, edible essence of therapeutic alchemy.
Cast iron solutions
I cherish my cast iron pot – an alchemical companion, with maternal symbolism. It is a supportive presence that helps me to care for a meal throughout its development. In the early moments, the pot seals each ingredient’s flavour with an attentive glow. Once everything has settled, the dish is ready to be left alone (a good parent knows when to let go). The lid goes on, like buttoning a child’s coat before seeing them off. Later, the time comes to welcome the finished meal to the table, like a pleased parent: the cast iron pot delivers her meal to the table with pride and joy My grandmother Gabby’s crimson Le Creuset® helped me plan outdoor, earth-to-plate sessions for single parent families caught in COVID-19 social isolation. The pot reminded me of how much is passed from generation to generation. How we are all ancestors of survivors and how cast iron speaks of solid, sustainable, secure attachment. It nudged me to ask Le Creuset® if they would like to support this community project bringing people together safely outside, picking vegetables and cooking them together. Just as my grandmother had said yes to that first tea party, Le Creuset® said yes to my request for help, giving a beautiful pot to each participant. Once again, the solution to isolation, dislocation and powerlessness, arose from the campfire cooking cauldron. Their affirming response meant so much more than the brilliant orange pots themselves. Quite literally, it was a gift that kept on giving, inspiring new recipes, ‘get togethers’ and cooking sessions.
The current cost of living and planetary crises have inspired a woman-led enterprise in South Africa to develop a no-plug, slow-cook product called a WonderbagTM. This is essentially a straw or fire pit method of cooking, in which you wrap your steamy stew cosy in the bag and leave it to simmer its way to dinner. Mother Nature carries on cooking, holding your warmth and attention secure, whilst you carry on with other tasks. The meal tastes of trust: unhurried and happy to become in its own time. There is a real sense of being parented in this slow method of cooking.
COVID-19 cookery sessions showed what was possible when a community came together in the face of crises. We see this echoed in a story called Stone Soup.6 A traveller arrives in a famine riddled village, sets up a campfire, fills a pot with stream water, and from his rucksack digs out a stone. Intrigued, the villagers ask what he’s up to. ‘Making stone soup,’ he explains. In the way of a potluck party, seeing the pot bubbling, the villagers brought a small offering to the soup. A cabbage here, some salt there, a little thyme. They made a meal that fed them all. Each member of the community, the hungry traveller especially, held an integral part of the solution. In Nguni Bantu, this is known as ubuntu, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu beautifully described in conversation with the Dalai Lama: ‘Ubuntu says it is for my benefit I share my bread with you… none of us come into the world alone… we are meant for a profound complementarity.’7 We do not, cannot achieve anything alone, as the principle of ubuntu – and any soup – knows, all existence depends on a profound complementarity.
It took humans quite some years to move from fire pit to cooking pot. Hard to date, but the earliest cooking vessels were found in China and are about 40,000 years old – not long ago. The containing pot’s liquid holds each ingredient together so that each contribution can be shared. This is a powerful metaphor for human society. Dhal, the nutritious lentil dish, is all but inedible without its supporting cast of onions, spices and the like. Essential water boils it all in the promethean gift of fire, and the lentil is transformed into something that feeds so many.
A question of time
Linda Cundy writes that ‘from the start of life, feeding is a relational activity… an opportunity for intimate connection … the nursing dyad come into synchrony; they find each other.’8 Our current world is moving so fast, on machine rather than human time, and meals can often taste of this disconnection. In our rush to feed the physical, we negate the need to feed our psyche. The way we feed ourselves is how we communicate love, pleasure and imagination. It is how we play. The space of interaction between a meal and its various makers is an incredible opportunity to reach deep into our humanity. Nature intended the bonds between people to be deepened by how we feed ourselves. This was illustrated in Harlow’s 1950s rhesus monkey early attachment experiments6 and by equally harrowing scenes from Romanian orphanages in the 1990s. Survival for primates (and for all things) is relational. Food without love leaves us hunting the shelves for more of what we don’t need. In the confusion, attachment becomes addiction.
Cooking was the first form of technology. We harness the energy around us to begin the digestion process before the food enters our bodies, leaving us time to play with. Nutrition comes, not only from an increasingly broad range of resources, but also from the creative confidence cooking inspires and the co-operation it requires. That is what Mother Nature divined when she nudged the parental Prometheus to show us how to make fire.
Make love not fuel
Our current technological revolution, predicated on the unfathomable laws of quantum entanglement, is outstripping our ability to be in the world. Our eyes are all turned toward the physical fuel aspects of life, away from the power of attention. I am reminded of the messages I read in my infants’ eyes as they fed. It felt like they were explaining the basic laws of love and connection, speaking in a quantum language that time forgot. Kitchen therapy suggests the maternal gaze provided by the campfire’s cauldron can help us remember the solutions, enchantment and understanding we have loved and lost.
Jung’s capitalisation of Self to indicate a soul journey that unites us all.
1 Gerhardt S. Why love matters. Abingdon: Routledge; 2004.
2 Winnicott D. Psycho-analytic explorations. Abingdon: Routledge; 1989.
3 Brillat-Savarin A. Physiologie du goût, ou méditations de gastronomie transcendante. Paris: A. Sautelet; 1826.
4 Wrangham R. Catching fire: how cooking makes us human. Profile Books; 2010.
5 Freud S. The interpretation of dreams. Revised edition. Wordsworth Editions; 1997.
6 World Food Programme. Stone Soup. A story for World Food Day. [Online.] https://documents.wfp.org/stellent/ groups/public/documents/webcontent/wfp202398.pdf (accessed 27 July 2023).
7 Cundy L. (ed). Attachment, relationships and food. Abingdon: Routledge; 2022.
8 Online Docs. The pit of despair: Harry Harlow monkey experiment. [Video.] youtube.com 2023. www.youtube.com/watch?v= RC0L_llyAz4 (accessed 26 July 2023)