Food has not always been my friend. In fact, for a long time it was my most reviled enemy. I can confidently say that from the end of my time in primary school, until well into my GCSE years, to think about food made me extremely unhappy. I sought comfort from food in order to deal with a lot of issues, a safety blanket that inevitably made me feel worse about myself. I grew up in a traditional working-class Yorkshire family, with all the lack of nutrition that entailed. How I didn’t develop rickets, I’ve no idea. Food was fuel and, much like the coal heaps of yesteryear Yorkshire collieries, piled high. Shepherd’s Pie. Gravy. Beef Stew and Dumplings. Gravy. Bangers and Mash. Oooh, onion gravy. I’m sure back then I would have bled Bisto. I loved, and still love, my mum’s cooking: hearty, sustaining, a comforting duvet on those nights when the cold nipped at you with its icy fingers. But not particularly great if you’re a kid who’s getting bullied at school for all sorts of reasons and the only refuge is mum’s mashed potato.
I ate in large quantities to deal with the emptiness I felt inside – food could hopefully fill a void that friendships at school couldn’t. I kept all this quiet, of course – mum and dad just saw me as their little boy who ate with a little more gusto than other kids. Indeed, me and dad used to make a game out of mealtimes. Who’d finish first? Dad always had a greater appetite than I did, and quite rightly so. Farming is hard graft (extremely laborious work, for those not attune to the Yorkshire lingo). As I grew older, however, I noticed that I could out-eat dad all the time, and all I did all day was sit on my bum reading Of Mice and Men and try to work out the tangent to a curve (I’ve still absolutely no idea).
I don’t think my family quite grasped the extent of the bullying – that’s not their fault, I preferred to talk to a Swiss Roll about these things than open up to them. As I went through secondary school, I began to realise that I wasn’t like most other teenage boys. Shock horror: I was gay. I can look at it playfully now, but at the time my world felt like it was falling apart. Barbed comments in the playground, worried looks from other boys in the locker room, downright abuse as soon as I left the school grounds at the end of the day. None of it mattered when I could go home and gorge on a family pack of chocolate bars.
So, I ate and I ate and I ate. Then I had a drink. Then ate again. I would come home every day from school and stuff myself. In that moment I felt pleasure. The carbs comforted me, the sugar released endorphins and I could feel myself getting into a frenzied, saccharine-induced trance. All the nudges in the corridor, all the being picked last for the sports teams, it all disappeared. I could be happy – just me and the kitchen cupboards.
Then, of course, reality set in. Eating so much for one little boy was self-destructive. I piled on weight to a beyond comprehendible measure, my skin became spotty and greasy, and my self-confidence hit an all-time low. I felt uglier than I’d ever done before. These behaviours were not easy to stop, however. Much like the alcoholic to the bottle, or the smoker to the cigarette, I’d developed a food addiction. It was a never-ending vicious circle. The more I ate, the worse I looked and felt. The lower my self-esteem, the more I got picked on. The more that happened, the more I ate. Without wishing to seem too melodramatic, there was a point in time when I really struggled to believe that I could go on living – I was defined by my weight, and food bore down on me like the heaviest of stones.
But then a change came along. And it came in the form of my Food Technology teacher, Mrs Frankland. I’d always been very academic in school; however, the creative subjects scared the living daylights out of me. I have never been a particularly practical person, and probably never will be, however this amazing teacher brought something out in me that has never left me, and that rapidly altered my relationship with food. Her exciting lessons and kind words made me realise that food no longer had to be my enemy. Food is creative, food is fun, and food is something to equally love and respect. I was taught to learn to appreciate food, to see it for more than just calorie-laden fuel; I was taught how eating good, satisfying food did not necessarily have to be laden with fat and sugar.
Food soon became my friend. Every week in that Food Technology class I tried to make a different dish, and over the course of the years the dishes became more and more elaborate. I had turned my disdain towards food, and consequently my self-disdain, into a force for good. I tasted food properly for the first time; I used all my senses. To savour food, you really must use taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch. I remember my epiphany moment like it was yesterday. The class was making choux pastry, so of course I decided to make a croquembouche. It’s only the French equivalent of the wedding cake! A triumphant, golden tower of profiteroles, this time filled with a pistachio crème patissière, glued together with a burnished caramel, and then topped off with mounds of ethereal spun sugar. Mrs Frankland and I made it together and it was wonderful. The sweetness of the pastry cream and the choux buns alongside the slightly bitter edge of the caramel. The sight of this colossal dessert, resplendent in its Eiffel Tower-like structure. Hearing the caramel and the choux buns crunch when eaten (croquembouche, after all, means ‘crunch in the mouth’ in French). The smell of the pistachio cream. Sticky hands from ripping the structure apart excitedly.
No longer did I possess an enemy. Food soon became my principal enjoyment in life, one that carries on to this day. I want to pursue a career in food journalism, and it would never have happened had it not been for my inspirational cooking teacher. As soon as I began to understand food, the overeating began to stop. I stopped worrying about how people perceived me; I’d found a pastime I loved, and nobody could take that away from me. Not to mention the fact that cooking is incredibly therapeutic. I urge all students, no matter how busy you are, to pick up your pots and pans and give it a shot. The simplest of meals, it doesn’t have to be complicated. 15-20 minutes is all it takes. I am of the firm opinion that cooking is a great way of improving your mental health. It certainly helped me. I’m not saying that I’m completely happy with myself now because of my love for food. I still have self-esteem issues, I’m still not satisfied with my weight, however I know that whenever these thoughts become a little too intrusive, I’ve always got the kitchen to retreat into.