Feeling bored, annoyed, unsettled in my pandemic-era kitchen
By Mary MacVean
It’s all Covid cooking now, and it’s getting achingly tiresome. I never imagined Covid cooking would become a way of life, that I’d still be making do without ingredients I wanted or that I’d be making dinner every single night, like my 1950s housewife mom. (Hope that’s not too painful, Husband.)
This has its upsides: More people might be learning to cook, at least I hope that’s so. We are perhaps wasting less food with a disincentive to run to the store for any old thing. I gave in and baked banana bread yesterday, when two bananas were past their prime and two others had been waiting in the freezer. It does feel that nothing is just right in my kitchen, though. The banana bread recipe called for a cup of chocolate chips, but I had only half a cup. Obviously not a tragic moment; I used more walnuts.
I am tired of planning to cook, not at all tired of cooking. Not tired of chopping and stirring and watching pots. But Mom, if you are looking down on your daughters, I get why you made the same meals week after week. “Spanish” rice with ground beef, a can of tomatoes and a miniscule pinch of spice. Meatloaf with ground beef, onions, green pepper, breadcrumbs and no spice. Spaghetti with ground beef … You get the idea.
Just as for the previous generation of home cooks, the problem is not the cooking, it seems to me. It’s the requirement that we cook. In many houses, it is we women who do that chore. Perhaps we like it more than men, perhaps we’ve more training. But despite their skills, men are less the daily dinner cooks than women. Still.
Not to mention there’s not always much in the refrigerator, as you can see. We’ve got plenty of condiments — sesame oil, four kinds of vermouth, three kinds of mustard, home-pickled peppers even. But they’re not really a meal on their own.
I’m accustomed to shopping at one or more of LA’s farmers markets — there are more than 100 in the county every week. Or at least there were. And I now shop at a couple, but it’s a plan, including masks and sanitizer, waiting in line and, most of all, worrying about being around people.
It’s been the season for sheet pan dinners. Which seem a bit like spread out casseroles. Which doesn’t make either one bad. Recently, I gazed into my refrigerator to scrounge dinner and combined what I found. Felt like classic casserole cooking, without the cream or white sauce. I sauteed carrots and onions, added boiled and chopped fingerling potatoes, some cooked greens of various kinds that I’d frozen over the summer. I mixed it together, with some fresh basil from the garden, salt and pepper, and spread it in a baking dish, aka a casserole. But it really became one when I shredded all the bits and bobs of leftover cheese for topping.
Another night, I made rice, leftover roasted vegetables and salsa. On still another, about 15 tiny, sweet Fairy Tale eggplants from our garden. I used Indian spices, tomatoes, onions and garlic; spooned it over rice and baked it till hot. This is an endless, easy, recipe-free way to get through supper. Add meat, or fish if you like. Leave off the cheese if you are vegan. You can prep it ahead of time and plan for leftovers.
I don’t have my mother’s excuse of having just a few cookbooks, ’50s grocery store options and the half-cow they used to buy a couple of times a year (yes, half a cow). In fact, it’s the opposite. I’m feeling buried in so many ideas on Instagram in emails, even actual magazines. How to make “the best” apple charlotte or chocolate chip cookies, or, of course, banana bread. Which ones do I save, and how do I organize that? Which ones do I print out? Yes to Yotam Ottolenghi from The Guardian — always reliable and unusual.
Today I got a reminder that I should be thinking about Thanksgiving side dishes. Arghhh. I can’t even figure out how our group of five will sit down, and hoping the weather will let us be outside. I have decided the table will divert from years past by being very simple. Maybe this simple: I love the way these olive branches from our front yard look in this vase, a gift from my sister-in-law Dorothy.
On top of the usual oppressive amount of diet advice out there in the world, there is a new layer aimed at people who, not surprisingly, are finding that with everything else that’s been tossed and turned, their eating habits are affected by the pandemic. Gimme another chocolate bar, handful of kettle chips, beer, whatever.
I do not want to pile on; nor do I want to judge. But the onslaught got me thinking: Most of us don’t eat proteins or carbs or fats. We eat chicken or potatoes or peanut butter. It’s worth keeping our sanity during this time, at least at the dining table.
Husband and I, like so many people, have sort of settled into our isolated routines. We’ve not been in anyone else’s home; we’ve eaten once in a restaurant, outdoors. Not to mention all the non-food-related changes. And we remain mindful of having each other; living alone is another layer of isolated now.
This will hit home in a new way very soon. It’s November, and soon I’d have all my plans and lists for holiday baking. The fruitcake — yes, I am a fan — would be baked and wrapped for dousing in bourbon soon.
We shall see if I have the heart for Zoom feasting.
Find joy, wear a mask and be good to the people around you. Thanks for reading.
Mary MacVean has been cooking for half a century. And writing about food for a few decades. She also has been an urban farmer. When her day sucks, she finds her equilibrium by coming in the door and starting to cook.