Food works better than Valium, I'm famous for telling my eating-disordered clients. Cookies and milk are comforting. A bowl of ice cream eases stress like nothing else. But as comforting as food can be, if it's the only thing that helps you manage your mood, you're at greater risk for more serious mental health problems, from anxiety and depression to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
Instead of relying exclusively on food to manage mood, I encourage clients to practice meditation, self-compassion, yoga and other "non-food" coping strategies. So when stress hits big-time, like, say, in a highly contentious election, they can choose how best to comfort themselves — with or without food.
That said, as the presidential race lurched and swerved toward the bitter end, swimming and my other go-to strategies offered little solace. Super-stressed and at a loss, I was surprised to discover the best cure for election stress was, in fact, the very thing I'd cautioned my clients against — food. Specifically, mindful muffins.
No, I didn't stuff my feelings with muffins. Rather, the antidote to my election anxiety was mindfully making muffins, not eating them. In the last grueling months of the election, I'd retreat from the political chaos to the sanctuary of my kitchen, where I'd bake batch after batch of muffins. Turns out, muffin making as a meditative practice is a reliable source of comfort and hope.
Don't get me wrong, mindful muffins aren't some anti-feminist response to a political crisis. I have no illusions that if women don aprons like '50s housewives, these divided states of America will reunite. I'm not naïve, just relieved to find a stress-reduction strategy that works better than hitting the psychotropic drugs.
If you're wondering if there's a recipe for mindful muffins, there's not. In fact, any recipe can become a meditative practice if you give it your full, undivided attention. Easier said than done, but, I find it far easier to focus on the baking task at hand than the breath or a mantra.
Which isn't to say the unfolding political drama doesn't derail my focus. It does. And when it does, words from a favorite teaching tale of Zen priest and cookbook author Ed Espe Brown help me refocus: "When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup." So when I line the muffin tin, I concentrate on lining the muffin tin. Ditto for when I measure the flour and melt the butter.
Over the course of the election, I experimented with a variety of flavors: mocha, chocolate chip, corn raspberry, even Hermit-cookie flavored muffins. But the hands-down, all-around winner was the blueberry muffin inspired by none other than Hillary Clinton.
No joke! In the early '90s, the Martha's Vineyard coffee shop Espresso Love created two muffins in honor of the Clintons' first Vineyard vacations. A Presidential Muffin for Bill — studded with the red, white and blue of strawberries, cream cheese and blueberries — and A First Lady Muffin for Hillary, which was a healthier version of the traditional blueberry muffin.
I, too, vacationed on the vineyard in the '90s and frequently bought those First Lady Muffins — they were the best I've ever had. Espresso Love still makes the historic Presidential Muffin, but Hillary's muffin has all but disappeared.
So when Hillary's return to the White House seemed all but guaranteed, I set out to rectify the Hillary muffin situation. I enlisted the founder of Espresso Love, Carol McManus, to create a muffin befitting the first female POTUS — something substantive and dignified.
When things didn't work out as expected, I was beyond disappointed, but not defeated. I re-enlisted McManus to create a "Mourning Glory Muffin" — something to sweeten the defeat and honor Hillary's enormous contribution to American politics. McManus had her own ideas for "The Hillary" — a fat-free oatmeal muffin that tastes like chocolate hazelnut cake. You can buy one at Espresso Love, or you can bake your own batch. The recipe is below.
Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Compassion Diet.
Originally published on November 18 by NPR.org