A knock on Sarah Tuck’s door is replied to with barking. The door opens slightly.
With tiny terriers Maggie and Dougal in tow, we slip in the door and proceed to the kitchen of Sarah Tuck’s impressive her Auckland home. That’s where it all happens for the food writer, it’s where she creates recipes for Cuisine magazine as well as Zest, Life and Tempo and her blog Stuck in the Kitchen.
Other than the two dogs, Tuck has an empty nest in Mt Wellington. It’s something she’s spent plenty of time coming to terms with. Her youngest son, 19-year-old Richard, left to study at Victoria University in Wellington at the beginning 2016, and 22-year-old Henry is living and working in Melbourne.
At the end of April last year, her husband left too.
Things fell apart, and she came “unstuck”. She’s shed many a tear into the carpet, lying on the floor coming to terms with the dramatic change in situation. And as she pieced things back together, her first cookbook came together.
Tuck puts herself on a plate in Coming Unstuck, both with her food and brutally honest account of the past year’s struggles.
“We’d been together 32 years, married for 26, and we started going out when I was 16. We kind of grew up together, and that’s why it was particularly difficult,” she says.
Feeling helpless and unlovable, the flow of glorious food and drink from the kitchen stopped and dinners became cheese and crackers and a whisky or two – or three.
“I just felt like I had absolutely no purpose, which seemed ridiculous. I had no one to work for, no one to cook for and no reason to get out of my pyjamas.”
She only cooked for work, never for herself. Over the course of those three months, she lost five kilograms. She just didn’t want to eat, and did not really know what to do.
“I’ve always been a person with a plan… it’s fundamental to my personality. That was what was really difficult, not knowing, I still actually can’t see the rest of my life. I know that some people find that exciting and freeing, but I find that sucks.
“The crap that my friends had to sit through,” she laughs.
“Some days I would get up and feel normal, but feel sh.. the next day. It’s slow, and awkward, and painful, and boring. You really know who your friends are, having to put up with that,” she says.
Following three months of helpless sadness, she began working on her book and found her purpose once more. She worked non-stop from August last year, cooking and shooting every recipe, and enlisted the help of her eldest son in designing the book.
It was a little like therapy for her, but also a means to help others in sticky unstuck situations.
“Doing the book was as much for everyone as it was for me.
“Everybody goes through crap. Everybody’s life goes through ups and downs. If you’ve got an ill parent or a sick child, or if you’re having work troubles, this is for when you’re not feeling your normal self.”
Being someone other than your “normal” self is OK, she says. The book simply suggests ways to help get through, by sharing what helped her and her experiences.
That’s why there is the chapter titled “sad arse meals for one”, focusing on tasty dishes to whip up while by yourself.
“You know, I think that’s one of things that I was thinking about – how grim it can be when you start cooking for yourself. It can be a bit grim. Sometimes you can’t be bothered.”
There’s Pog’s rice, a favourite of Henry’s, Hoobie’s bean quesadillas, a favourite of Richard’s; there’s also toasties, soups and other easily achievable, but flavoursome, single-serve dinners to make anyone’s mouth water.
“I was not the kind of person who asks for help. I needed help, I was a write-off. That’s a really good thing to learn.”
So the sad arse meals are followed by an entertaining chapter, something she later started doing with friends to thank them for lending a shoulder to cry on.
“Entertaining by myself. I’ve always done all the cooking myself, but it’s a different gig going from couple entertaining.
“Getting into that, and realising it was fine, made me feel more confident.”
That makes sense, according to what she calls “Sarah Tuck’s theory on cooking and how it helps mental health” which says the repetitive action of cooking and following a recipe is therapeutic.
“It’s settling. I know that things like knitting do the same thing, gardening is the same. You’re doing something that has a purpose but is a gentle process.
“I think cooking is underrated.”
She’s also included chapters for her great baking recipes, nibbles and breakfasts, as well as ways to make things as easy as possible.
But Tuck says she’s not providing a silver bullet, instead she wants to acknowledge how bad it can get. It’s there to help though.
One thing she is not doing is dealing in uplifting phrases, or minimising problems. Things don’t get better overnight, and it’s not like flicking a switch, she says.
“I also didn’t want it to be trite. I am anti all those kind of terms, people say all these kind of slogans to you.
“Life’s not like that. It’s really crap for quite a while, and you have to just hold on. It can be really s… and it gets really s… and it’s OK to say it is s…”
But things are better for the food writer, she’s in a better space and that cookbook has just been released.
“Is life perfect? It’s probably about as perfect as it could be. The only thing I still struggle with is I have no idea what’s going to happen next. If that’s the worst, then that’s OK.”
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This sounds fabulous! I think this would make a terrific gift for a few friends.