How Cooking Saved My Life

By Celena Chong

When you’re five, nothing gives you more pleasure than piecing together tiny wooden blocks that resemble a misshapen pile of firewood. The finished product is a log cabin, but your mind wanders too much to follow simple instructions.

At that stage in life when you think kissing boys is completely out of the question and you try to eat the plastic eggs on top of your Barbie cooking set — you know you’re doing it wrong. Whatever you’re creating looks nothing like the cover, but it doesn’t matter.

As the years go by, the handholding slackens, and you’re faced with a longer rope to belay. Everything gets more daunting — the decimal after a grade point is enough to provoke your weeknights. Flights of social anxiety — to make the best connections, to attend the best parties — flood your Fridays.

All of a sudden, you think you might be killing it. You land blaring brand names — and you’re doing it one writing sample at a time instead of using your father’s credentials like you think that guy in your Tuesdays-Thursdays did. The best part of it all — it’s a formula. You land something, then you know what to look for next, and the next thing you know, your byline is under The Wall Street Journal. That’s your champagne-popping success. You think you’re dope because some venture capitalists know your first name and your SEO is sweeping search engines.

Then, you really fuck up at your internship. You tweet something nonsensical and seemingly humorous to a male celebrity because your other friend over at Buzzfeed has. Despite thousands of replies fluttering through the Tweetsphere, he catches one.

Lucky you, it’s yours. It blows up in your face. He keeps on tweeting about you. Thousands of replies swarm your feed.

“What a moron.”

“Fire her.”

“What a nasty liberal.”

“You’re over.”

“Your chest is too flat…and you’re too ugly for TV.”

“She looks pretty fat.”

The last two grab you and you’re snatched on a sharp hook. You get so overwhelmed that if you don’t log out after reading stock recommendations all day, you swear that you will detonate on the shuttle that takes you home everyday at 5. You feel your career slivering away like an IV drip. You don’t eat for two days, and your toes quiver so much that your socks look like they’re draped over uneven, shuddering trees.

You report tweets written by a faceless someone who supports the celebrity. He has a fancy mode of transportation in his profile. The Porsche writes another series of harassing tweets, and it’s clear that someone’s deep stalked your Facebook, past high school era. Some of them say that you’re too ugly to be on television, that you look horrible in a bikini and that your days are numbered as a reporter.

You read them aloud, chortling the whole time, in front of your friends like you don’t give a damn. The whole time you’re thinking about how possible it is to murder your online presence and toss the remains somewhere nobody can trace. Or get a fake ID and start life all over again.

Twitter then “evaluates” the situation that you’ve reported. You’ve flagged them earlier for harassment and bullying.

After two hours, you get an email telling you that Twitter decided that the none of the tweets meets its guidelines for takedown.

You don’t want to leave your apartment. You cook, obsessively. That horrid, scratchy sound that everyone hates when the spatula wallops the bottom of a non-stick pan is your sweet pastoral. Your go-to is your stove, and you fill your mind with permutations of ways pasta can be cooked while your workplace is “investigating you” for a senseless 120-character phrase. You never use a recipe, though, partly because you can’t afford wholesome cookbooks. Mostly it’s because your mom tosses onions and basil in her vermicelli, unbounded by half cups and milliliters.

You concoct stir fries, udon noodles, tacos, curry dishes. You want to eat none of it since you keep seeing “too ugly to be on television” float in the air, which to you, means “fat”. The insult is a neon imprint, emblazoned inside every room you try to leave. You count the calories in a single stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. You estimate how many there may be in a single lick of Mac purple lipstick.

You also don’t think you’re blessed with your mother’s instinct when she whips up a laksa, a Malaysian coconut curry soup, or Thai basil chicken. They taste so damn good that you want to rush headlong into the kitchen and tear it apart, and you forget about how much fat is hanging off your arms. You wonder if you can replicate magic. Cooking becomes one of the only things you look forward to, after you write about bear markets all day.

It’s a Saturday morning and curry doesn’t seem to fit as a breakfast, but it feels right. You twirl your index finger around inside the pot where tumeric and cumin waltzes inside small bubbles. You pop a globe and taste the sauce. It sears your tongue with a delicious, tangy bang. Your appetite returns, seemingly one calorie at a time.

The adrenaline of cooking. It gives you a sense of uncertainty but it wraps its arms around you and your instincts start shaping to it like a fitted glove. Even when you can’t even call your weird fusion udon noodles with oyster sauce a nod to Asian cuisine. Your experiments are a blubbering mess, but they’re fucking beautiful. Just like when you were five.

One day, you’re running a minute below your mile time in Central Park and the sun looks soft on a harsh city and you realize that everything’s alright.

Your newfound love of gripping a pair of tongs and the beat of Amine drives the spring of your steps. You improvise your trails, snaking from the Guggenheim to the Lower East Side. You don’t think your orthorexia is at bay, but obsessive, self-aware thoughts no longer steep in your mind and bleed through your pen and onto the paper.

The search for playbooks means being guided by a mother’s hand especially when she shows you how to cook an egg with soy sauce for the first time. It’s tender and loving. Utterly lost.

Celena Chong is a freelance journalist, spoken word lover and pianist. You can see more of her at