"So what's for dinner?"
My brother, his fiancé, and his best friend asked me this question moments after I dropped my bags down in the foyer of my mom's house. The four of us had decided to hole up together in Rhode Island at the end of March, and unbeknownst to me, I had been chosen as the "head of household."
I've historically had a complicated relationship with food (I've struggled with an eating disorder for most of my adult life), so have largely avoided anything having to do with the kitchen. Beyond preparing the basics (like cooking pasta or sautéing spinach), I found most food preparation stressful and sometimes triggering. And I felt that I didn’t have the skills to be able to cook something healthy that I—or others—could enjoy. But compared to the rest of my quarantine crew—who had apparently been subsisting on Kraft Mac and Cheese and Fruit Roll-Ups before I walked in the door—I was practically Ina Garten. That first night, I grabbed some brown rice, a few eggs, an onion, and some soy sauce, and whipped up the most bare-bones version of "fried rice" that the world has ever seen.
"This is good," they all agreed, going back for seconds and thirds until the entire wok was completely clean. Seeing them love something I had made filled me with the most joy I had experienced since the world went on lockdown two weeks earlier.
The next morning, inspired by my successful stir-fry, I made a Excel document with more than a hundred recipes I wanted to try, complete with links, ingredient lists, and suggested side dishes. There was everything from Alison Roman's infamous stew to hoisin lettuce cups to the cheesiest eggplant parmesan that the Internet had to offer. I committed to testing a new one every day until the world returned to normal. This wasn't just for fun (although that certainly played a part): In a rural beach town in the dead of winter, our takeout options were limited to deli sandwiches and fast food burgers. If I wanted to eat well, it was going to be on me to figure it out.
Even when the food sucked, my new post-work ritual of chopping vegetables and marinating meats added the sort of structure into my day that had been ripped away when "commuting" and "going out" stopped being a thing.
According to a 1,005-person survey from Hunter, 54 percent of respondents said they’re cooking more than they were pre-pandemic—and, well, it me. “What we saw was an immediate turn toward self-reliance [in the kitchen],” John Adler, the head chef and vice president of culinary at Blue Apron, previously told Well+Good. “People who had never meal-prepped before and thought that home cooking was set aside for a special occasion made it part of their routine, somewhat out of necessity but also out of stubbornness of thinking ‘I can do this, I can get through this, and I can take care of myself.'"
For the first few weeks, "taking care of myself" was literal trial by fire. I set the smoke alarm off more times than I would care to publicly admit, and learned the hard way that you're supposed to peel and de-vein your shrimp before you put them into your risotto. But even when the food sucked (and, yes—there were a lot of times when it was straight-up inedible and we had to go all-in on ice cream for dessert), my new post-work ritual of chopping vegetables and marinating meats added the sort of structure into my day that had been ripped away when "commuting" and "going out" stopped being a thing. I stirred sauces while I danced around to my "Good Mood Only" playlist, and learned how to cook the perfect piece of salmon with nothing more than salt, pepper, and a little bit of lemon.
On a few occasions, my quarantine buddies would join me in the kitchen. Most Friday afternoons, we took Zoom Challah-making classes and treated ourselves to full-blown, potluck-style Shabbat dinners—something I hadn't done since before my Bat Mitzvah in 2004. One night, we hosted a Chopped-style challenge in which two of us went head-to-head cooking three-course meals out of mystery ingredients. For what it's worth, I won, but we all walked away feeling bonded by the experience.
Spending hours in front of a hot stove each night gave me purpose and made me feel productive at a time when I really needed it, and enjoying my creations with the people I love taught me the true emotional value of cooking.
During such a complicated/anxiety-inducing/scary (or, ya know, "unprecedented") time, nothing made me happier than sitting around the dining room table and watching people I love take the first bite of something I had made. Having dinner together was one of the only times during the day that we could unplug from whatever was going on in the world, and take a break to pretend (for 20-30 minutes, at least), that everything was normal. We had a "no bad news" and "no screens" policy, and I asked everyone to go around the table and share one positive thing that they'd learned in the last 24 hours. Through all of this, the idea of "comfort food" took on an entirely new meaning.
Though it was technically thrust upon me against my will, my COVID-19-induced shift toward self-reliance in the kitchen pushed me to re-evaluate my relationship with food. Not only am I now a damn good cook, I've also developed a deeper understanding of just how meaningful creating and sharing a meal can be. I used to just focus on making food that would fill me up and give me the nutrients I needed; I never imagined that the cooking process itself could be fun or emotionally rewarding. But I was proven wrong. Spending hours in front of a hot stove each night gave me purpose and made me feel productive at a time when I really needed it, and enjoying my creations with the people I love taught me the true emotional value of cooking. Something that was once stressful and unpleasant wound up bringing me a whole lot of joy when few other things could.
Even now that restaurants have started to re-open, and I can eat something other than a Whopper without having to make it myself, I still relish my time in the kitchen. I may not be whipping up the entirety of the Well+Good Cookbook on a random Tuesday night anymore, but just knowing that I can has given me a newfound confidence that has stuck with me. And for what it's worth? I haven't set off a smoke alarm since June.
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