Sonali Menezes’s teeth flash in a brilliant smile as she says hello on Zoom after being briefly trapped in waiting room purgatory. Behind her I can see the edges of art of all kinds, creating a chaotic gallery: prints, paintings, and works in progress.
Last fall, Menezes started working full-time as an artist and educator in her home city of Hamilton, Ontario. Menezes is a zine-maker, but multidisciplinary at her core: She’s also a printmaker, a painter, a videographer at times. Her work captures her experience as a member of the South Asian diaspora, whether she is showing us her hairy legs in a drawing or exploring her past self’s nascent relationship with anti-capitalism via zines and prints. She recently finished a painting in the course of her time at the Doris McCarthy Artist-in-Residence Program outside Toronto, Ontario. “I was staying at a painter’s house,” she says, so she felt inspired to paint, producing a striking portrait of her and her husband lying on the bed, bare legs tangled, cat sleeping beside them.
Her popular zines, a medium she explores frequently, include You’re So Exotic, So You’re Anxious as Fuck, and 100 Things I’m Looking Forward To. Last year, she created the award-winning and internationally beloved Depression Cooking. The zine is much like it sounds: A collection of recipes, tips, and thoughts for mentally ill people (or just tired ones). But it also explores the boundaries of diaspora and being in community and reflects Menezes’s personal experience with mental illness and the often dismal struggle of trying to figure out what to eat.
The zine opens with a letter to the reader that serves as both a love letter to food and a reminder that when it comes to the dark times of mental illness, sometimes eating is an accomplishment. “Through lots of hard work over the past three years, I’ve been gradually improving my relationship to food, which I’ve learned is intricately tied to my mental health and my body,” she writes, establishing at the outset the tone of a peer advisor, confidante, and empathetic voice.
Zines can be a form of peer support, a practice in the mental health community by which mentally ill people provide encouragement through shared experiences. Via her zines about mental health, Menezes speaks intimately to the reader; So, You’re Anxious As Fuck, for example, is a loving guide for the newly diagnosed, the old hands, and those who think they might have a mental illness but aren’t sure. The ultimate goal of Depression Cooking is recognizing that depression (and anxiety, and other mental health conditions) can make it challenging to eat. It’s easy to feel frozen around food when your brain is not doing well, something nondisabled outsiders may not fully understand. The zine cuts to the heart of that frozen feeling with clear, actionable, simple steps. Do you have a packet of ramen? Okay, cook that. Is there any chance you have some frozen spinach? You could add that if you want! Do you have eggs? Drop one of those bad boys in there. The additive nature of Depression Cooking lets the cook tap out or keep going at their own pace, and in the end, they have a bowl, plate, or pot of food to eat.
The zine is freeform in a way that reminds me of rummaging through the cupboard or freezer for random things to combine into a meal. Menezes acknowledges that this structure, or lack thereof, may be intimidating for some readers, but her suggestions for ingredient additions or combinations encourage a shift in thinking about what to keep around the house and how to interact with it. And especially for those who are new to cooking for themselves, Depression Cooking provides a fantastic shorthand for basic skills. There is no wrong or right way to eat in this context, and sometimes that extra push is the difference between staring at the wall for dinner and making some toast with an egg on it.
In an era when mental health is often reduced to self-deprecating memes and cutesy illustrations, an approach that some certainly find relatable, there is something refreshing about Depression Cooking. It’s frank and wry, and some parts are quite funny, but it’s also honest without being earnest, and gentle without being twee. And in this approach, Menezes expresses her desire to return to the “original conversation” on a subject that has become commodified. “Feeding yourself is self care. Going to sleep is self care,” she says. “You don’t need to look hot on TikTok at the gym drinking a $15 smoothie. That’s not self care for the masses.”
The notion of what self-care is, and who it is for, has become heavily warped, shifting away from care of self and community as intertwined. Audre Lorde’s theory of self-care as an act of resistance has trickled down to appear on notebooks, tote bags, and book dedications; the idea that you can buy your way to good mental health is inherent in advertisements for everything from bath bombs to pints of Halo Top. “Self-care as [it’s] sold to us is very entrenched in capitalism, white supremacy, ableism, all these ideas,” Menezes tells me. “Some of the conversations around self-care sound very selfish.”
Depression Cooking explicitly pushes against that. Instead Menezes’s goal is nourishment for her readers, and she empowers them with reminders that they can follow or not follow her suggestions, eat or not eat anything she might recommend. “The zine is not about functioning better under capitalism so you can be a productive human and make money. It’s about feeding yourself,” she says.
These pressures are often very real, if unstated, in the context of mental health advice designed to push readers toward a presumed normality or desired stability that’s rooted, fundamentally, in fitness for work and contributing to society in an extremely specific way. In Depression Cooking, Menezes posits the idea that perhaps people should prioritize a fulfilling relationship to food over solely viewing workplace viability as the marker for successfully navigating their depression. To her, establishing a more stable connection to eating has intrinsic value that can extend to their relationships with themselves, and, hopefully, their experience of mental illness. And by using the zine format — offering up a guide that can be bought for $3 to $5 at a zine fair, or shared in PDF format, or shyly found on the shelves at the community clinic — she democratizes information she thinks everyone should have access to.
The reception for Depression Cooking has been almost overwhelming and very positive, Menezes says, especially after an Instagram share from Alice Wong (who is co-editor of this series) triggered a flood of comments, messages, and orders. She says seeing all the notifications when she woke up made her panic for a moment, and the sheer volume became impossible to keep up with, forcing her to restructure how she handles correspondence.
“I feel like since I’ve made Depression Cooking, I’ve been outed publicly as depressed,” she says. “It’s been an interesting experiment in being open and vulnerable with people. I’ve made so many connections with so many people. People who are depressed, or don’t even describe themselves as such, struggling financially, fresh out of a breakup, just had a baby.”
Zines are designed for making these kinds of connections, as well as for collaboration, including marginalia or entirely new Depression Cooking-inspired works with different recipes and approaches. Several artists have reached out to Menezes to let her know they’re working on similar projects, sometimes with invitations to collaborate. “All of this is wonderful,” she says of the artists and activists and others inspired by her work to expand upon it in new platforms and formats.
Menezes has also received a few requests she’s less enthusiastic about, including one to make a “clean,” swear-free edition for social workers to distribute to youth, and frequent comments that she should make a vegetarian or vegan edition. She acknowledges that Depression Cooking may not be a great fit with all diets, but it is also a deeply personal volume, and she’s sharing what works for her — many of the recipes are in fact quite easy to adapt for vegetarian and vegan readers, or start out that way.
Ultimately, Menezes knows where her boundaries are with such personal work. A vegetarian exploration of food and mental illness will have to come from another artist. But Menezes is interested in creating a book-length version of Depression Cooking, with more recipes and illustrations. The current text-heavy edition of the zine is accompanied by lively art, but a book would create much more room for delving into new recipes and fields of exploration; she notes a particular interest in the curries in a bag available at many Indian markets and the wide world of microwave cooking. She recognizes that traditional publishing is a big shift from zines culturally (and financially) but feels it provides an interesting medium, and notes that earlier zine iterations of Depression Cooking will always exist to be passed around, discussed, and pored over, because the spirit of zines is eternal.
In the meantime, though, Menezes has other projects to pursue. Her sprawling, ambitious exploration of the mango, which occupies an important role in the South Asian diaspora, opened in June at Centre , a gallery in Hamilton, Ontario. “Eating a mango is one of the most pleasurable things I can do. I have a theory that if I ate a mango every day, I would not be seasonally depressed,” she says, though she is quick to note that this is not a prescription or a recommendation to stop taking medication.
How to Cut a Mango includes sampling and profiling a wide range of mango varieties while talking to members of her family about how they cut, eat, and interact with mangos, which feel to Menezes like a vital part of her culinary heritage. The project is “a shrine to the mango,” and mango prints and other components come together to form a love letter to what she considers one of the world’s greatest fruits.
On Zoom, she leans forward with excitement as she talks about an expanded iteration of this project and reaching an audience beyond the tight-knit zine and mental health communities for the conversations she hopes to have around food and nourishment. The enthusiastic response to Depression Cooking certainly suggests there’s a hunger for more.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based writer and editor whose work on disability and culture has appeared in the Nation, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and more.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Cheryl Green is an access artist and filmmaker with acquired disabilities, whose work focuses on disability identity and culture and on making media accessible.