My Finest Pandemic Moments Were in the Kitchen
Since I’ve spent the past fifteen years teaching at a university renowned for its culinary program, you might think I’m an accomplished chef. Alas, I am not a member of that elite club — though occasionally a student will respond to me with a “Yes, chef.” Then I get all gooey inside.
I am an English teacher, and up until a few years ago I wasn’t even a mediocre cook. I was timid in the kitchen. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I never had the chance to practice my cooking. Sure I mastered a few dishes: blueberry pancakes, vegan chili, various types of pasta, and peach pies. But for the most part my repertoire was bland and boring. Bean burritos made from canned beans was a staple.
Many of my students learned how to cook at Grandma’s elbow or standing next to Dad at the stove. They started cooking when they were so small they had to use a stepping stool to reach the counter. Not me. Dinners with my mom were often spent at the Derby House or some Italian restaurant with candles burning in old straw-covered Chianti bottles. Not that I’m complaining. I loved going out to restaurants with my mom.
We didn’t go out every night, however, and she did have a few standard dishes that she prepared regularly: spaghetti with meat sauce, chop suey from canned Chinese vegetables, hamburgers, that sort of thing. Once a year, she’d go all out and make shrimp curry or baked ham for a houseful of guests. But she never taught me even the rudimentary dishes. She always said, if you know how to read, then you can cook.
This, it turns out, isn’t quite true. After I grew up, I would dutifully read recipes but they often mentioned techniques that were lost on me. What did it mean to blanche something? Even if I did figure out how to cook the recipe, it was often a failure.
When I got married, my husband was the adventurous one in the kitchen. He had a flair for preparing food that he’d picked up from his grandmother. He did teach me a few things along the way — how to make a killer guacamole and a hearty Mexican breakfast. But I stopped eating meat early in the marriage and he didn’t. We had a daughter but she was the pickiest eater to ever hold a fork. She liked her food in shades of yellow: yogurt, cereal, and macaroni and cheese. So I usually made a dinner of pasta and steamed veggies for my daughter and myself, while my husband made some sort of meat dish for himself.
When we got divorced in 2012 I thought I might get better at cooking, but wishing I could cook didn’t seem to do the trick. And this is when the teacher became the student. One of my culinary students wound up without a place to live. I had a guest room that I’d been using for Airbnb and offered to rent it to him at a reduced rate in exchange for some cooking lessons.
And boy did I get some lessons. We made tuna steaks with mango salsa and asparagus risotto, poached eggs on oysters in the half-shell for breakfast, seared scallops, alligator gumbo and tuna tartare. The kitchen was always a disaster. Other students would show up in the evenings and there’d be cooking and drinking and music long after I went to bed.
The culinary student only stayed with me for a few months, and it wasn’t like I was a great cook when he left. The difference was that thanks to his tutelage, I became confident in the kitchen. I took my time. I’d try different things. I wouldn’t worry how it came out. I learned how to make some delicious dishes over the years: Persian okra stew, seared salmon, a black bean and quinoa bowl, and all sorts of soups. I even bought an immersian blender.
When the pandemic came, I was ready to take it to another level. First, I was able to finally move in with my long-distance boyfriend of many years because I could teach remotely and so I had someone to cook for. Second, I had more time on my hands. Third, well, the Internet. There it is with all those handy videos.
My boyfriend (six month into the pandemic he became my husband) was the perfect person to cook for. He’s not a foodie, but he likes just about everything I fix. Unlike my former husband who would have criticized Jesus for not walking fast enough across the lake, my current spouse can always find something nice about whatever I put on the plate from plain old beans and rice to pasta primavera.
So I’ve been having fun. I’ve experimented with a few rudimentary Asian dishes — shrimp stir fry with brown sauce, shrimp fried rice with oyster sauce and toasted sesame oil, and vegetables with cashews. I’ve made black-eyed peas and black bean soup (successfully!) from dried beans. I made a to-die-for butternut squash soup, a leek soup for a friend who had Covid, and pumpkin chili with black beans and garbanzo beans.
I’ve picked chantarelle mushrooms from the ground and made creamed mushrooms on toast, mushrooms with pasta, and mushroom rice. I’ve roasted golden beets, a variety of squashes, brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, red peppers for a cream cheese dip, and cherry tomatoes to put on penne. I’ve learned how to actually use tofu, including a veggie tofu scramble with turmeric and a delicious tofu barbecue sandwich. And my cast-iron skillet cornbread will melt in your mouth. The coup de grace was the caramel pecan cheesecake I made for my husband’s birthday.
I realize that I’m incredibly fortunate to have had this time to indulge in something I love doing. I haven’t had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one to Covid. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work when so many others have scrambled for a living.
Life hasn’t always been so kind to me, but it’s given me a pass this time — at least so far. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t what tomorrow will bring. I’m not glad we all had to go through this, but I am glad that I have finally become something I’ve always longed to be: a pretty good cook.