Pandemic Cooking

I wasn’t always interested in cooking.

My first husband was a creative and innovative home chef whose meals delighted everyone–even if some nights we didn’t eat until 11pm. He would often cook for hours and loved to entertain groups of guests. I worked late many nights, and he would be home with our two daughters, whipping up some over-the-top delicacy on a normal Tuesday night. Racks of ribs. Filet mignon with blackberries and compound butters. Seared cowboy sirloins or marinated one-inch bone-in pork chops. Italian spreads with from-scratch marinaras for homemade lobster raviolis. It was decadent, and luxurious, all of that food.

We split after 20 years when our girls were in high school. I was in a master’s program at the time and was freelancing instead of working full time. Because of our fixed budget, the girls and I changed our eating habits drastically. My younger daughter, Ryn, became a strict vegan. I began planning meals for us a week in advance to make things easier–and then realized I needed to make two complete meals every night, one vegan, and one not. That didn’t work for long, and I realized I needed to find a better way.

So I started by making every dish vegan first. No butter, cheese, dairy of any kind, no meat. If I wanted to add cheese, I could add it at the table. If my older daughter, Park, or I wanted a side chicken breast, I would cook that separately. The girls and I rotated nights to cook, insuring that my teenagers knew their way around a kitchen. It was a time of relearning food for me. We eliminated most if not all meats, and made everything possible from scratch. It saved money, was a nice meditation time in the kitchen, and with nothing processed, we always knew exactly what we were eating. I knew my meals would never be like their father’s cooking, but I could make my own mark on food going forward.

When I remarried and moved to Florida with Ryn–Park was in college by then–I not only brought my new “mostly-vegan” way of cooking to my new role as stepmother, but I also arrived with an overwhelming desire to win over my new husband’s sons, Wes and Carson.

“Mostly vegan” took some getting used to for the men in the house. I made everything from scratch, from marinaras, to pastas, to all the breads, and we developed a staple of favorites that seemed to please everyone. Over time, I think I won them over (even if, every now and then, they chant, “meat, meat, meat!”) If we want to grill a pork loin or bake chicken, it’s no problem. But dinnertime in no way revolves around a main meat dish. Making beautiful, homemade, healthy vegan food felt like a triumph.

We’d been married for three years when Covid-19 came to America.

Pandemic

We’ve now passed our 100th day in quarantine. I work from home, as does my husband, Steve, and since the dorms closed in March, Park has moved home from college. Overall, we’re lucky. No one is sick, we still have our jobs, and besides being stir-crazy, we’re okay. Ryn graduated from high school and started college without leaving the house. Carson, now 17, spends hours practicing guitar and piano instead of running with his friends. Park has learned to both tutor and continue her college research from afar. (Wes, now a Marine, is based in California.) And although we’re driving each other crazy with five of us rarely leaving the house, the one common thread of each day has been our meals. Without that, I think we’d really be nuts by now.

We’ve made everything from an extensive Greek night to authentic Italian. Mexican soups, Asian Pho. We’ve been as creative as we can be, from stuffed acorn squash to decorative breads. We avoid “faux” meat, instead just going as natural as possible. Here’s a sampling:

Keep in mind, everything you see here is vegan first. The fish, chicken, or cheese is only a side dish or condiment.

After twenty years of mostly not cooking, I’m pleased with how far I’ve come in a few short years. I’m proud of my daughters and what they’ve learned about food. I’m thankful for Steve and his skills in the garden (I haven’t mentioned, but he grows pineapples, papayas, all our herbs, squash, and the latest experiments: fig, pomegranate, and avocado trees, still too young to bear fruit.) And even though I’m not vegan, Ryn’s vegan influence on this family has left an indelible mark. Park has taken on bread-making with gusto, making sure we have a new recipe at least once a week. And Carson excels at burger night, his favorite meal to both cook and eat.

Cooking during the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a meditative practice. Rolling out pasta, kneading bread, blending soup or marinara. Thanking the vegetables as I chop them. Thankful for my health and breath. Thankful for my family. Cooking is a time when the anxieties and strain of the day can lift away, if only for a little while.

I know. It’s just food. I could be writing about the marches for racial equality and the corresponding white fragility, the administration’s failure to handle the pandemic, the worldwide economic panic. All of these things are important to me. I could write about my helplessness and anger, my fears, my worries. Instead, I thought I’d share my kitchen. I don’t have solutions to the world’s problems, although I sure wish I did. But with a little flour and yeast, some fresh vegetables and some heat, I can make you a meal.