x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

My love of food is not about control, it's about freedom

Not all patterns are formed in early childhood, though many habits are formed out of hunger. Rules of all kinds, including ones about how your kitchen should look, are made to be broken.

Kitchens are romantic spaces. As with bedrooms, we're often embarrassed or apologetic about how ours look because idealised versions of them are crammed down our throats at every turn: in magazines, on television and at Ikea. The study, where work happens, and the den, where life happens, are meant to be chaotic; that means they're being put to proper use. But the kitchen is a space that's both intimate and communal, and it's where the magic is meant to happen, which might explain why a lot of magicians – and a lot of chefs - have control issues.

My attraction to freedom, and subsequently to free will, probably began before I could read. As a child, my favourite stories featured ambling runaways with bindlestiffs. These characters might travel with a hunk of bread and some hard cheese wrapped in a bandana, tying it to the end of a stick to throw over their shoulders. In the stories, the wanderers sat thinking on hillsides and drinking cool, silvery water from streams. I kept a printed image of The Runaway by Norman Rockwell inside my history textbook and one of Atreyu from The Neverending Story in my diary. Through my imagination, I lived the stories of fearless warriors freely and vicariously.

So it was particularly gutting for me to find myself, 11 years old and imprisoned by a nervous, compulsive habit, being counselled by a surly little man on the topic of fate. A habit of "counting", as we called it at the time, had become paralytically time-consuming; a detriment to my waking life. The shrink, Dr Ahmad, pulled a roll of Polo mints from his white coat pocket and offered me one. I'd always hated Polo mints, but it seemed like a bad time to say so. As I reached forward, Ahmad lifted the mints out of my reach. Gesturing toward the ceiling, he said: "There's only one hand on the controls, and it's not yours." It took me another four years to figure out that he hadn't been talking about himself.

Not all patterns were formed in early childhood, though many habits are formed out of hunger. There are many kinds of hunger, but all of them tend to lead to the same place. Some sources of hunger are less esoteric than mine, and more poignantly transparent. For instance, I was once served an edible but joyless breakfast of oatmeal dust. The woman who'd collected it from the bottom of oatmeal boxes had grown up during the Depression. Despite having accumulated great wealth, she was primed to conserve and help eliminate waste. I knew other octogenarians like her; one reused paper towels after washing them and letting them dry on a clothesline.

Dreaming up worst-case scenarios, worrying and ruminating are ways to dissociate and keep the present moment at arm's length. Most of us who do this started before we were old enough to know what we were doing, and as anxious kids, we carried an elevated sense of responsibility through our lives and missed out on some of the carefree living that's the hallmark of childhood. My cousins love to embarrass me now with stories about how agitated I would get over things that kids were supposed to enjoy, such as fireworks and hot dogs. But because I'd read about, say, the ozone layer, or the unused meat scraps that go into hot dogs, I'd hide in my room with a book instead.

I do think about food constantly, though not for the same reasons as a lot of people. It's been suggested that my initial interest in food was about control, but I'm not so quick to pathologise it. However, food intake is certainly one thing most of us can control – and even micromanage if so inclined.

On average, women think about their bodies eight times a day, and according to some surveys, up to four out of five are dissatisfied with their appearance. Not everyone can control their weight, and even fewer can control their self-perception. But there's a reason why so many people live to break the rules. Rules of all kinds, including ones about how your kitchen should look, were made to be broken. In fact, the making of rules sets up the most conducive environment for breaking them and the same goes for diets. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Under chaotic circumstances, controlling thoughts are often emotional defences, though they're not very healthy ones. One of the things that drew me to cooking as a teenager was the sense of freedom I felt, although I've seen the World Pastry Cup and enough competitive cheffing to know that there are plenty of outlets in the kitchen for a control freak. It's just not where I let my freak flag fly. Egg yolks break. Toast burns. Accidents happen. And somehow, for me, this is always OK. For 15 years, I've credited cooking with keeping me sane. I may be half-joking every time I say it, but for a glass-half-full kind of girl, a half is enough

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico.

artslife@thenational.ae