When Shayma Saadat moved to Toronto from Rome for love, she experienced the kind of loneliness and isolation that often bubbles up during a job hunt in a foreign place.
"It was a difficult adjustment process," says the Cambridge-trained economist. "It was different from Italy and from my South Asian upbringing."
So, for six months, while searching for work, Ms. Saadat began to explore food and cooking. Then she started The Spice Spoon, a food blog "based on my gypsy lifestyle and my Pakistani-Afghan-with-a-hint-of-Iranian background."
Rather than writing about dishes she'd mastered in Italy (where she worked for the UN), Ms. Saadat decided to conjure the smells and tastes of her childhood. "I had moved to a new place, and felt I wanted to do something very creative. Cooking food from home made me feel rooted," she confides. "I wanted to feel I belong and that I was rooted in a place where I felt lost."
Ms. Saadat wouldn't be the first person to transform personal adversity into a culinary adventure - cooking as a sort of therapy. Renowned Italian-American chef Marcella Hazan taught herself to cook when she found herself alone in New York with her new husband. Jean Paré, the 82-year-old Alberta author of the Company's Coming cookbook series, says that when her first husband abruptly walked out on the family, she did catering to pay off debts. "The main reason there was solace in [cooking]was because it had to be done," she says now.
Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking bubbled up from the emotional and financial turmoil that followed her husband's suicide. Even Peg Bracken, author of the I Hate to Cook Book, acknowledged the therapeutic aspects of baking, with her Aggression Cookies: Kneading, she writes, is ideal for "channelling some energies away from throwing bricks."
More recently, domestic goddess Nigella Lawson has spoken about the satisfaction she finds in simple gastronomic pleasures during difficult periods, such as the deaths of her first husband, sister, and mother.
Next month, in a new book, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, New York Times food writer Kim Severson explores the healing powers of the kitchen through lessons learned from such cooks as Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham and Rachael Ray.
Ms. Severson recounts professional and personal struggles - including a battle with alcoholism - and says the one thing she could always rely on was the "ability to go to the kitchen, turn on the stove and feed someone."
"My heroes are women who never abandoned the kitchen," she writes. "They use cooking as a source of strength. Their recipes have helped save their communities and kept families together. They have made political change through their love of food."
So why is cooking therapeutic for some? Leading food psychologist Dr. Brian Wansink, head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has studied "nutritional gatekeepers" or influential cooks. He found that of the five main types of cooks, three use cooking to get through rough patches.
Sometimes, making food is a means of creative expression, or they prepare food to compete with or get affirmation from others. There are "giving cooks" who cook to please. "When you cook for others, you're saying you care they are well fed and healthy, which is something you just don't get from doing other things," he says.
Dr. Christine Courbasson, head of the eating disorders and addiction clinic at the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says she's seen patients who cook to relieve stress or free their minds from worry. "Some of them fill a void or find that it's a way of numbing. You also have to be mindful of the activity because you don't want to chop your finger off."
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As with Ms. Saadat, past experience and emotion can be recreated in the kitchen. "When they're young, if they were soothed by a certain food, they will cook that food not because of the taste, but because of the associations they have had with it," Dr. Courbasson says.
Cooking classes can also double as group therapy. Natural food chef and cookbook author Nettie Cronish says that her lessons frequently become confessionals in which students share why they find themselves in the kitchen - even when she reminds them that it's not the time for personal revelation.
"Most people tell you anyway the reason that led them to take this course," she says. "I've seen cancer patients, recent divorcees, people who have just gone through a break-up and want to meet someone new."
Alison Fryer, owner of the Cookbook Store in Toronto, says collective catastrophes usually indicate a coming sales spike. "Our months after 9/11 were the best sales in a long time," she says. "We've done three recessions in 27 years, and they were all great for business."
Canadian food writer and culinary anthropologist Naomi Duguid says that in her travels around the world she has noticed a universal pattern: "When there's war or strife or dislocation, people use their daily patterns of necessity - most often cooking - to make things normal again."
In a similar vein, Ms. Saadat views her food blog The Spice Spoon as a healing influence.
"I want to send out a message about Pakistan and Afghanistan, show the romantic aspects of my country, because right now, nobody talks about the beauty of these places," she says. "In your kitchen, cooking is like artistic alchemy. You can feel like an artist, making, building, and creating something, all through food."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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