In the first weeks of quarantine, my kids and I each shed about five pounds. What would have once seemed like good news didn’t feel that way anymore. Rationing every apple and each piece of bread, we didn’t know when or how we would get groceries again and it wasn’t only us. Most everyone seemed worried as we focused on planning meals and finding ingredients to make those meals.
It took me some time, but I finally settled into a quarantine rhythm, and as I did I saw some positive changes emerge around food. The first was that stores began adapting, erecting shields to protect cashiers, requiring shoppers to wear masks, and offering curbside pickup and deliveries. This meant there were options for getting groceries, which allowed many of us to move beyond food rationing and fixating on the relentless demand for meals on the table to something else, something entirely unexpected.
I cannot look away or pretend that people aren’t dying. But I also cannot ignore that people are continuing to help each other and finding ways to be resourceful within the long shadow cast by so much death. Light and shade will together shape our experience of this time, but as I look into the light I find many people reclaiming a skill that as a culture we had mostly lost. Home cooks of every age have been learning to make good meals out of basic ingredients, or even ambitious ingredients now that we can safely restock our shelves. Looking into the light I see resilience and, even more, proud self-reliance.
This virus, for all the suffering it has inflicted, has also allowed something within us to awaken and bloom: A newfound self-reliance has strengthened our resolve to step up to the stove top and cook.
By every indication, even before this virus swept our world, many Americans who weren’t doing much cooking seemed like they wanted to change that fact, or at least imagine changing it. Collectively, we bought millions of delivery boxes full of ingredients we could use to prep meals. We binge-watched cooking shows, subscribed to recipe blogs, and popularized time-saving dinners like one-pot meals or five-ingredient recipes. But actually putting meals on the table and sitting down together to share them, not so much.
It may be the frenzied pace at which we were living. Many of us had long commutes to work that, with more cars on the road, were getting longer. With so much work being done on computers, the pace and load didn’t stop when we left the office. It’s understandable that on average we were giving less time to cooking meals and eating them than were our counterparts in other parts of the world. For a long time, we were cooking fast if we cooked at all. We were eating fast too, with a quick bite in front of the computer or carry-out in the car standing in for a meal. Then, too, we were eating mostly alone.
The pace of our lives wasn’t the only culprit. We have a colossal food industry in America that has profited by promoting and selling us time-saving convenience. Prepared food, fast food, and meal deliveries were everywhere in this country competing for our attention and our money. But in spite of all they promised, they also contributed to a loss of good health and sound eating habits while undermining a communal sharing of meals and our ability to do for ourselves.
This virus, for all the suffering it has inflicted, has also allowed something within us to awaken and bloom: A newfound self-reliance has strengthened our resolve to step up to the stove top and cook. The virus may not have made washing up after cooking and eating any more fun or interesting than it was. But it has given us the satisfaction of knowing that we can rely on ourselves, and the distinct pleasure of believing that we are resilient. When pressed, we can do what we must and we can do it well enough. Many of us have for the first time been planning our schedules around the meals we share, and if I’m noticing this you may be noticing it too.
Someday this virus will pose a lesser threat and, in the wake of terrible devastation and loss, we will begin to rebuild. At some point, we may resume our daily routines and once again have the option of eating out without feeling any stress attached to that choice. It may be the optimist in me, but I wonder if some of us may be less interested than we once were, or interested less often. We may rather stay rooted, to the extent we can, in the slower rhythms of home, preserving what the virus is still teaching us and what we now understand — that cooking simple food and sharing it with the people we love is sacred and a pleasure.
(Health-supportive chef & food educator, Ellen Arian teaches Online Sourdough Bread Baking and Butter Making Classes.)