The best meals I have ever made are the ones I make up in my head. I spend a lot of time pottering around up there in the dusty recesses of my mind: I rehearse earth-shaking put-downs; I wonder how I’d explain things like bootcut jeans to an alien (how could an alien ever understand how a couple of inches around the ankle could change your trousers’ entire cultural DNA?); I hash out the details of my dream career du jour—pastry chef one day, psychiatric nurse the next. I date women soccer stars! I skateboard! But most of all, I cook.
My daydream cooking is usually wild and weird, the kind of food that you’d expect a child to dream up. There’s a cake I often imagine making: a bubblegum-pink cake with strawberry goo running through the middle like a sugar artery. On my phone, I keep a list of dream ice cream flavors which swing between the coyly experimental (bay with honeyed peach) and the recklessly dreamy (thunder and lightning, lemon grove, blueberry dream). I do all this outrageous cooking with my head resting heavy on my pillow or my fingertips wrinkling in the bathtub. “Fold the whipped egg whites into the silky molten chocolate,” I muse from the comfort of my bed, popping another grape in my mouth.
You’d think that the more vibrant my fantasy food life, the more I would cook in real life: that these daydreams, like appetizers before the main course, would stoke a hunger for more. But my mind-cooking is most insistent at precisely those times when the kitchen seems like an impossible place. If my relationship with food starts to falter and I feel nervous about calories in and energy burned, I think instead about Bruce Bogtrotter’s infamous chocolate cake in Matilda, the eating of which is a greedy, defiant act. After a binge—when my veins seem to course with sugar and my head throbs—I soothe myself dreaming about tiny, meditative food rituals: shaping gnocchi, frying plantain, picking garden peas up on the prongs of a fork.
These fever dreams are at their most outrageous when I begin to feel lonely. When I’m isolated—often by choice, but sometimes, like now, by circumstance—my anxiety mounts until I’m half-feral. I steal into the kitchen under cover of darkness like a marauding fox. I eat whole bars of chocolate by phone-torchlight in my room. Yet in the safe space between my two ears, I twirl around a fantasy kitchen in a summer dress, squeezing lemons and sniffing sprigs of rosemary, making a croquembouche like it’s no big deal and whisking cream to perfect, billowing peaks. Ideas for cookbooks that I’ll never write and recipes I’ll never make start cluttering my notebooks. I spin myself into a frenzy of culinary maybes while my belly rumbles and my skin breaks out.
In the hazy moments before he falls asleep, Jonathan Katz drifts into fantasies of braising brisket, making gefilte fish and plaiting the soft, supple dough of homemade berches (a German–Jewish variety of challah, with the addition of mashed potato in the dough). For food blogger Jonathan, these reveries are a kind of calming bedtime ritual. “When I am having trouble falling asleep, and I miss my partner and my family—they’re 200 miles away, in another state—I start thinking about all the stuff I want to cook for them,” he shared. “I’m much calmer and happier as I think about making these foods.”
These flights of fancy do much more than simply lull Jonathan to sleep. He has written about being autistic and about the particular challenges this can present in the kitchen: too much bright light or extreme heat can overwhelm him; the clatter of pots and pans can overstimulate his senses to the point of distraction. But when he cooks in the vast, lawless space of his own imagination, he is free to mold the processes of cooking to suit his needs: he “edits out” the sticky, gummy texture of the dough he kneads for his imaginary berches; he amplifies the sweet scent of maple syrup, or the feeling of shredding cabbage leaves between bare hands. It’s lovely, he says, and very bizarre—a kind of “sensory dreaming” in which the rules are his to bend and break.
If you find yourself navigating a new way of being, perhaps far from the ingredients you know and love, you might retreat to your imagination to cook a stew with sticky fufu dumplings or to pry open the lid of a tin of golden syrup. Those with eating disorders can dance through the rhythms of chopping, stirring, sizzling, and eating in the comfort of their own minds, building up to the moment when they’re ready to tackle the real thing. Some don’t cook for lack of money or time, others for issues with their health or because their confidence has wavered. No matter what you’re pushing back against, this dreamy cooking is a vital spark of hope. The cooking we do in our heads nourishes us where the real world lets us down.
Now more than ever, these feats of imagination matter. Until recently, food writer and chef, Thom Eagle, had been cooking on weekends at Bottega Caruso, a small restaurant in the English seaside town of Margate. His Sicilian-inspired Sunday menu hopped from cracked olive salad into strozzapreti, lamb sugo and sheep’s cheese, ending with a flourish with a bright blood orange salad. But when coronavirus hit the country and the restaurant shuttered, he channeled his creative energy into a more unorthodox kind of cooking. “For the next few weeks,” he wrote in one blog post, “this page will function as a fantasy restaurant, as I post the menus I would have been cooking at Bottega Caruso with accompanying recipes.”
The menus he has dreamed up so far are fun and defiant. “The mackerel is very good today,” he teases, leading into a fantasy menu which includes, among other treats, sweet and sour ox tongue. The following week’s menu featured jellied pork with pickled carrots: a dish which would have taken two days to make. Whilst the circumstances are bittersweet, Thom has found a seductive freedom in this imaginative work. “It frees me from practical considerations both of what I can physically prepare and serve by myself, and of what people might actually order and understand.” When Thom reaches out across the social distance, we’re invited to join him in a dream.
Others are taking this opportunity to imagine a culinary landscape different to, even better than, the one we currently inhabit. In a searing critique of the restaurant industry and of those who want to restore it to its pre-coronavirus “glory,” artist, cook and writer Tunde Wey wrote on Instagram that “we should be demanding a new system that works for owners and workers alike, one that provides quality housing, healthcare, food, childcare, education, leisure, and work. Instead of bailing out restaurants, we should make people whole.” His manifesto sprawled across captions underneath pictures of fried plantain and beans, egg salad sandwiches and pasta, laying the foundations for a radical new way of cooking in the appetites—and daydreams—of the here and now.
It can be tricky to flex your imaginative muscles when everything feels so bleak. But even when you’re isolated, you’re not on your own. When I’m at my most depressed, I lean on old friends to inspire me: all those cookbooks I seldom cook from and those TV shows, films and books that light a creative spark. I reread the food scenes from the Redwall fantasy books—feasts of strawberry wine, hazelnut cream pies, bilberry tart, and seed cake—handily collected on Twitter by a helpful bot.
I rewatch my favorite-ever show, Tuca & Bertie, dreaming of how I’d make the wild confections that fill the pastry cabinets where Bertie works: boob cannoli (you have to see them), lemon peeps and crunts (a cross between bundt cakes and a cruller). Sometimes I draw friends into these fantasies, and the dream becomes a conspiracy: The other day, my friend Mini and I discussed how to make Pop-Tarts (which are very exciting and alien to us Brits) in frantic messages over WhatsApp.
Best of all—I climb into my pyjamas, cradling a Creme Egg in one hand like a precious stone, and read Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat. I imagine making a Christmas Eve goose while slinking around the kitchen in a silk robe. I prepare scallops for lunch like it’s no big deal. I fantasize about baking figs and breaking into a gooey chocolate pudding. For once, I sift my flour! In this suspension of reality, I imagine all those normal things which have now become extraordinary (cooking for friends; safely sharing a kitchen), and those extraordinary things that I hope might someday become normal, accessible and affordable (the luxury of home cooking; beautiful ingredients; time to spare).
Of course, there’s no chance of me ever really making braised pheasant. I will probably never cook a lacquered quail. I can only imagine what it’s like to live like this, to cook like this. But, sometimes, imagining is enough.
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