My Mental Illness Won’t Let Me Go Home. So I Cook.

updated Jun 19, 2019
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Credit: Rhianna Chan

In August of 2014, I moved from California to Minnesota for a relationship that didn’t work out in the end. I’d been struggling with panic attacks for a year-and-a-half, but after moving to Minnesota, panic insidiously took control of my life until I was no longer able to take elevators, go to the grocery store, drive on freeways, stand in lines, or fly on airplanes. I was diagnosed with agoraphobia and panic disorder.

While I’ve since overcome the majority of my symptoms (that’s a whole other story, for a whole other day), I still can’t fly, and the furthest I’ve driven in the past couple of years is 337 miles. I’m essentially stuck in a state that, until a few years ago, I never thought I’d even visit, and I haven’t seen the ocean in four-and-a-half years. In order to cope, I sometimes pretend that redwoods, the ocean, and California itself don’t exist.

That, and I cook.

Credit: Bonnie Horgos
The author with her father.

Since moving to Minnesota, paprika has become a staple in my kitchen. My father was born in Hungary, where this rich spice is celebrated. (While my mom visits me every six months, my dad has difficulties traveling. I haven’t seen him since 2015, so my time in the kitchen is often spent thinking about him.) Whenever I miss my parents so much my entire body aches, I cook up my favorite nourishing meal of paprika-doused chicken thighs in my cast iron skillet. I buy my paprika from a local Eastern European shop; they carry my father’s favorite brand, Pride of Szeged. I might not recognize some of Minnesota’s countless lakes, but I always recognize the sweet smokiness of paprika. I always recognize the sizzle of chicken skin against a hot iron surface. I could cook those chicken thighs in my sleep.

In a way, my inability to go home parallels my father’s life. He was born in 1945, and fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a nationwide revolt against Communist rule that resulted in 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops being killed in conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fleeing as refugees. After living in a refugee camp for a year in Yugoslavia, my father came to the U.S. on Halloween day, 1957. He hasn’t been back to Hungary since. I must say this: I will never know the terror of fleeing a country as a refugee. I do feel a bit selfish for even mentioning my mental health struggles in the same sentence as my father’s own escape from Hungary. I do know this, though: To me, the taste of paprika reminds me of my father. To my father, the taste of paprika reminds him of Hungary. To both of us, the taste of paprika reminds us of home.

Of course, the flavors that cure my homesickness go beyond paprika.

For a time, I lived in San Francisco and walked past Swan Oyster Depot on my commute to and from work. Every morning, I’d see the same men unloading fresh oysters, scallops, crabs, and fish before an infamous line would start to form along the dirty sidewalk of Polk Street. Whenever I yearn for the salty waters of the Pacific — I was baptized in the ocean — a raw oyster can bring me back home, if only for a few moments.

I once tried maintaining a sourdough starter, but it paled in comparison to the legendary sourdough of San Francisco. To satisfy my need for fermentation, I brew large batches of kombucha, which I first started doing in high school. Once, I brought a SCOBY to work, and my coworkers nearly fainted at the thick chunk of bacteria and yeast. I feel the same way about the salty, gelatinous lutefisk, so I guess we’re even.

Every autumn my father harvests persimmons from our neighbor’s tree across the street and ships them to me. Biting into a fuyu is perhaps the most bittersweet feeling on earth; the spiced sweetness can never linger on my tongue long enough during the fruit’s microseason. He’ll also send me hachiya persimmons; I let them ripen until they’re as swollen as water balloons, then make delightfully sticky loaves of persimmon bread.

Bread helps. Baking any sort of bread. (Even my lesser attempts at sourdough.) The best part of baking bread is how it perfumes your home.

The constant yearning for home has become a perpetual theme in my life, particularly with my agoraphobia diagnosis. When a panic attack strikes, I’m constantly seeking shelter. Sometimes I’ll pace my house, looking for a place where the air isn’t so thin that I’m swallowing blank space. It’s hard to explain the symptoms of agoraphobia, so I simply tell people that it feels unsafe to be in my own body. My body is not my home.

According to the Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is the ability to set and achieve goals. Without this ability, individuals are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. When my agoraphobia was at its worst, I sank under the turbulent waters of depression. Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t do “basic” tasks like grocery shop or drive on the freeway. My life felt so narrow, I didn’t really see a point in living. Because I couldn’t perform simple, everyday tasks, I created a version of self-efficacy that met my parameters at the time. If I could just sleep through the night, I’d reward myself with a croissant in the morning. I did this for several weeks until the fog started to lift. I doubt I’m the only person whose life has been saved by a croissant.

Just as the promise of a flaky pastry carried me through sleepless nights, cooking has carried me through homesickness. When I can’t stand another casserole (or, even worse, hot dish), the simple pleasures of a steamed artichoke transports me back to my home on the Central Coast of California.

Sometimes I can’t remember life before Minnesota. Aside from the sub-zero winters, I really do love it here. Since moving to Minnesota I’ve swum in countless lakes, developed a passion for cheese curds, hiked stretches of the Superior Hiking Trail, slept in log cabins, sled down snowy hills, and fallen in love with a strapping Southern Minnesotan.

Of course, I still miss my home — so deeply, I sometimes force it out of memory. I’ve never asked him, but I bet my father feels the same way. We both refuse to forget the flavors of home, though.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to fly again. I don’t know if my dad will ever make it back to his home country. I do know, though, that with a few sprinkles of paprika, I can recreate the flavors of my childhood, as well as my father’s.