Saturday, September 30, 2023

‘What If I’m Okay Just As I Am?’ Nici Wickes On The Joy And Solace Of Living Solo

Her sunny, friendly demeanour became a lifeline for many of us during those lockdown evenings but for food writer Nici Wickes, the pandemic years brought a surprise for her as well: a joyful acceptance of living the single life. She talks to Capsule about getting honest in her new cookbook, A Quiet Kitchen, and finally learning to live with herself.

It’s a dreary old day both in Auckland and in food writer Nici Wickes’ coastal home in Port Waikato, but it simply doesn’t matter today, because having a phone call with Nici is like having a direct line to the sun itself.

For the thousands of people who have cooked along with Nici, in her job as Food Editor at New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, on her show World Kitchen and now on her popular Instagram channel, the level of cheer that comes with Nici will be no surprise – heck, along with the fantastic recipes, maybe it’s the reason you have tuned in for so long. She’s a bright spot in an often gray world.

In her new book, A Quiet Kitchen, the part cookbook, part memoir takes us inside Nici’s kitchen, as well as Nici’s heart and home. As well as the recipes that took her – and us – through lockdown, it’s a warm, thoughtful and honest look at her life: living alone, mental health and how the thread of cooking has run through all of these different aspects.

Nici Wickes cookbook, A Quiet Kitchen

Take the chapter title: ‘Joy, Dream Dinners, and Depression’ – that’s a sentence that runs the gamut of the human experience right there. It’s a combination that also aptly sums up what a lot of life has been like, for both Nici and so many of us, in the past pandemic years. As things got quieter, we were all able to start paying more attention to what was going on around us and inside us, as well.

Finding Solace in Solo Living

One week after New Zealand entered the first Level Four lockdown in 2020, Nici lost her job – alongside us at Capsule – when Bauer Media NZ shut down. Suddenly she was at home, alone, in her coastal cottage, with no plans in the diary. And she was… loving it?

“For me, in lockdown – and it would have been the same for many people – your choices came home to roost, literally,” she says. “What I was delighted by was to find that I was happy with my choices.”

As a naturally curious person, Nici says that previously her brain had been full of questions: was she doing enough? What was she doing with her life in general? “By quieting down and being forced to stay still long enough, I really got to know my lifestyle and I realised I enjoyed it. I always thought that I would go crazy down here, that I needed an escape route. So, to discover that I didn’t, it was very reassuring.”

She sums it up as this: “I never want to go to New Year’s Eve, let me tell you. And this was like New Year’s Eve was cancelled,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Yay, I don’t have to be the loser saying, ‘well, I’d rather stay at home,’ because everyone was home.”

It’s part of the reason she started doing her daily Instagram videos, welcoming us into her kitchen and what she was cooking that day. Nici wanted to be helpful and she knew that people would be struggling with a) being home all the time and b) the eternal lockdown question of ‘what are we going to have for dinner?’.

“The book isn’t just for people living alone, it’s about how to live with yourself.”

Well, these just happen to be her super powers, she laughs. “I was thinking, ‘God, I really know how to do this – I really know how to live alone, and I live a fairly satisfied, contented life.’” So, for months at a time, Nici would whip up a daily video showing her making something simple and delicious to help inspire other people to get into the kitchen.

And all of those recipes went into A Quiet Kitchen, which Nici created after teaming up with good friend and photographer Todd Eyre, who’d become a good friend over the five years they’d worked on the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly together.

Once it was safe to do so – Covid-restriction-wise – the pair teamed up to do the photos for the cookbook. The result is stunning photos that match the cosy, natural vibe of the food – the wild west coast beach, where Nici swims all year round, photos of her gorgeous cottage, her beaming smile and a whole host of lick-the-page recipes.

While the majority of the meals are designed to be cooked for a solo eater, there are plenty of options in there because dining alone isn’t the whole point, Nici says. “The book isn’t just for people living alone, it’s about how to live with yourself.”

The word she comes back to is solace: that idea of providing comfort. Both in terms of finding solace in food but also solace in your own life, as well. Nici is the first to admit that being single long-term was something she really struggled with in her 30s, as her friends settled down around her.

“I stopped angsting about finding a partner in my mid to late 40s,” she says. “But until then, it was probably a fairly consistent theme in my life.”

“There were times when I was lonely, there is no doubt about that. But if I had been able to separate ‘am I feeling lonely’ from ‘am I feeling the loneliness of my situation in terms of how it looks to others?’ I think those two things might have been quite different.”

“I think of the bravery it takes to turn up to Christmases, to parties, to weddings on your own.”

It’s part of why she wanted A Quiet Kitchen to include so much of what it’s like to live alone – and love it – so that other people would know it is a great and valid lifestyle choice. That falling in love with your own life can be the love story you’ve been waiting for.

There are times when being alone can be trickier than others, she says. “I think of the bravery it takes to turn up to Christmases, to parties, to weddings on your own. I mean, there’s the financial burden of that, you have to bring the whole bottle of wine or the whole wedding present yourself!”

But it can take an emotional toll as well – and weddings can be a wobbly time, even when you are genuinely thrilled for all involved, perhaps because there is rarely a single-person equivalent, perhaps because weddings are the most ‘yay, couples’ event of all.

“I remember going to a few weddings in a row that had bummed me out, where I had driven away in tears just because I was seated at a table with the relatives and the odd-bods,” Nici says. Having thoughtful friends can make a big difference, she says. In the same period of time, there was another wedding where Nici was going to be riding solo again and a good friend said to her, “Do you want me to come and stay with you that night?”

“At first, I thought ‘oh, don’t be ridiculous, what would that make me?’ But then I changed my mind. And when I got home from that wedding, at 10pm – because I was a non-drinker, so I couldn’t just go and get slaughtered to have a good time – I just walked into the house and burst into tears, and they gave me a hug. That’s all I needed. Just someone to be there, so that I wasn’t left alone with my thoughts.”

But for the most part, Nici says she’s very content by herself, that it’s a way of life that suits her. “It doesn’t suit everyone to be on their own and it doesn’t suit everyone to be partnered up; you just have to own that space. And lockdown really put the full stop on that for me.”

The Importance of Cooking For One

It’s one thing to live solo, but it’s another (smaller) kettle of fish when it comes to cooking solo. Nici has said previously that as she’s become more well known for living alone, she often hears from other women who live by themselves that they don’t see the point in cooking nice meals for one. This is a loss, she says, because everyone deserves to eat well.

“I can really sympathise with women who have perhaps cooked for a family their whole lives, who are now separated or widowed, for whom cooking for one feels fruitless,” she says. “But I often wonder if it’s because women always cook for others, so to do it back for ourselves… we’re just not in the habit of that. ‘What’s the point?’ Well, the point is YOU. Turning that nourishment back on yourself can be lovely.”

Plus, you have a level of freedom, Nici grins. “One of the things that I love about living alone is that I can cook and eat anything I want, at any time of the day. I’ll have a steak for breakfast, Emma! Once I had two! I had a packet of scotch fillets defrosting and I was feeling a bit poorly, a bit cold-y, and I ate a steak, straight from the pan to the chopping board, standing over the stove, with lots of salt and pepper on it. And I went, ‘that was amazing… I’m going to cook the other one.’ And I did.”

It’s clear to see that she’s not an advocate for living an unhealthy lifestyle – “make sure your indicators like glucose are all good, make sure your heart and cardio are all good” – but she also thinks that living a life of ‘what’s the point?’ isn’t a good idea either. “Whether it’s mid-life or living alone, I don’t believe it’s a time to be denying yourself,” she says.

Cooking is one of the many mental health tools that Nici does advocate for in the chapters of her book. As someone who lives with both a chronic health condition (ankylosing spondylitis) and mild depression, she says she went through the same journey as many others of trying many different lifestyle choices and looking for the silver bullet that would improve everything.

“But I think, to be honest, a joyful and contented enough life is made up of lots of little things.” She says her most pivotal changes were giving up drinking and starting to take antidepressants: it enabled her to have more consistency in her life and gave her what she needed to make other healthy choices, like eating well and prioritising sleep.

She’s also a huge fan of a daily green smoothie and cold-water swimming, going for a dip every other day or so, all year round. A while ago, Nici also did a course on self-compassion. “It made me realise that my internal critical voice was keeping me really tired; I was constantly giving myself a hard time about stuff.”

Having little adventures and nice plans booked in is also a key for staying positive, she says. “I always like to have a little something that I’m looking forward to,” she says.

Our phone call is drawing to a close – there are neighbours to catch up with and work in Auckland to be getting on with. I ask Nici what she would go back and tell the 30-year-old version of herself, the version who felt at a crossroads between what she wanted and what she thought she was supposed to want.

She thinks for a bit. “I would have wanted her to be a bit more invested in loving herself – Oh, that sounds SO corny,” Nici laughs. “Maybe I should have/could have asked myself the question: what if I’m okay just as I am? And then maybe I would ask ‘what can I do to love myself more today?’”

“It’s not that I was ever self-loathing; I’ve always had good self-esteem and good self-confidence, I’ve always liked myself. But I think, fundamentally, I wasn’t ever taking care of me. I was taking care of everybody else, as a substitute for taking care of myself, or as a substitute for even admitting that I might need some gentle, lovely care as well.”

A Quiet Kitchen by Nici Wickes is available now in all good bookstores.

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