On Cooking and Eating in a Pandemic

On Cooking and Eating in a Pandemic

Right now, I am grateful to be the sort of person who keeps a well-stocked pantry and freezer all year round. I have never liked making multiple grocery runs every week. I plan ahead as much as possible. If I don’t have something I need for a particular recipe, I improvise or do without. I have often joked to my husband that I should start a service where people send me pictures of the contents of their fridge and their pantry and I’ll tell them what they can cook. Got a can of beans and some old stale bread? You’ve got a hearty soup, my friend. Got some canned tuna? You’re halfway to a gourmet meal. Got eggs? Eggs are little miracles, the basis for a million delicious dishes. Eggs will take you from breakfast to dinner to dessert.

picture of a stocked pantry

I know I’m lucky that I can afford to keep extra food on hand. I know some people cannot. And I’m glad that I know how to cook and bake, and that I enjoy doing both. My husband and I eat out only occasionally, only as a treat. Mostly we cook meals at home. We eat pretty well. Earlier this week, I pulled an entire duck from the freezer and roasted it. Now we have a huge vat of duck stock and duck fat for future meals.

Even so, I find myself assessing my food stores and wanting more. I have tuna and tomato paste and pasta and rice and beans. I have shrimp and chicken in the freezer. I think there’s even a steak in there. I have flour and sugar and baking soda and yeast. So, we have plenty. But I keep putting things on the grocery list, things I imagine we’ll want: bok choy, scallions, anchovies, citrus fruits.

Suddenly, when I know I can’t or shouldn’t just run to the store to pick up a few things, I want to. I want to run out and buy jasmine rice, even though plain old white rice is fine. I want angel hair pasta instead of spaghetti. I want cannelini beans instead of chick peas. I want tuna packed in oil instead of water. I want little jars of roasted peppers and nonpareil capers. I want gorgonzola cheese. I want a variety box from the olive bar, a mixture of Kalamata, Castelvetrano, Picholine, garlic-stuffed Manzanilla olives, and maybe a few brine-cured peppers. It’s silly. I don’t need any of this stuff. I wouldn’t run out to buy it in ordinary times. But suddenly I want all the luxuries.

Don’t worry. I’m not about to make a run on the gourmet groceries, but these are the sorts of things I crave when times are difficult. When everything is rolling along in an ordinary way, I’m happy to cook and eat chicken soup and grilled cheese. But traditional comfort foods don’t really bring me comfort. Perhaps it’s because they don’t seem all that special. We eat comfort foods all the time. Comfort foods are easy. What I want now is fussy food, the sort of food that can’t be cooked in a crockpot or left to simmer while you do other things.

For me, there’s as much comfort to be had in cooking as in eating. A dish that requires a lot of time and attention brings me joy. There is something very satisfying about the moment when a finicky sauce emulsifies and turns silky. Bread is inherently suspenseful. Will it rise properly? Will it split in the oven? Will the crumb be fine or airy? So I suppose what I’m craving is not just fussy food, but distraction. It’s hard to concentrate on the news of the day when you’re focused on whipping a meringue to exactly the right consistency.

All of this is to say that I hope you are doing well and eating well during these strange times. I hope your pantry is full and that you have chocolate on hand if you like chocolate. But mostly I hope you have the basics. I hope you have what you need even if you don’t have everything you want. We’re doing just fine over here. We’re lucky. I may be dreaming of oil-cured olives, but I’m pretty damn happy to wake up to soft-boiled eggs and toast.

Carry on. Stay well. Let me know what you’re eating and what you’re craving. I’m curious.

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