Food

Quarantine Hasn't Made Me A Better Cook—And I'm OK With That

I don’t enjoy cooking for myself; I simply cook to survive. During a pandemic, that’s more than enough.

It’s been more than three weeks since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and in that time, my social media network has basically turned into The Food Channel. My family WhatsApp group features daily pictures of what my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandma cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while on Instagram stories, friends are busy baking cinnamon buns, crusty sourdough and intricately decorated focaccia. 

I, on the other hand, don’t even have a bag of flour on my shelf—and it’s not because of the recent spike in demand for it. I once owned flour, but it stayed unused in my cupboard for so long that it got bugs, and I never replaced it. I only buy baking soda to help with fridge odours. I have never in my life bought a pack of yeast. 

When the Public Health Agency of Canada advised people to stock up on a few weeks’ worth of food, I grabbed plenty of canned beans, frozen pizzas, milk and eggs. To be honest, this wasn’t a huge departure from my regular grocery list. It’s the menu I’ve developed over years of living alone, using cookbooks mostly for decor. 

By nature, social media is set up to only reflect what we think is our best lives. It’s basically a highlight reel, and right now, this includes baking, exercise or learning the latest TikTok dance craze. What I’m not seeing is streams of people making cheese toast for dinner (hi, hello, that’s me!)—but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean simply feeding themselves doesn’t count as cooking. No, I’m not cooking my way through quarantine, thank you very much, and scrolling through endless photos of banana bread or artfully plated homemade pasta only serves to poke at my insecurities in the kitchen.

In addition to the existing supply of great recipes online, quarantine-specific guides have popped up everywhere from Bon Appétit to the New York Times. Queer Eye’s resident food and drink expert, Antoni Porowski, started “Quar Eye: Cooking Lessons in Quarantine” on Instagram. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat partnered with  Hrishikesh Hirway to create the “Home Cooking” podcast with a similar goal of helping people figure out what to cook right now. Toronto chef Nick Chen-Yin even started a free cookbook of “recipes to be used in quarantine during a global pandemic,” sourced from local chefs. Not to mention, numerous articles have associated people’s rising interest in home cooking and baking with self-care

Yet, here I am, thumbing through everyone’s photos while eating chips and wine for dinner, wondering, Dang, am I doing quarantine wrong? 

In part, this concern is due to the perception that by clearing my social calendar and staying home, I’ve been given the gift of time: time to do those chores I’ve been putting off or make those recipes that I’ve bookmarked. As Nick Martin wrote in The New Republic, this mindset is the result of our hustle culture, “the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.”

I originally looked at quarantine as an opportunity to address my culinary shortcomings, to cook less like a student and more like an “adult.” I didn’t have any particular recipes I wanted to tackle. It just seemed like a good time to overcome my intimidation and finally try to make broth from scratch or cook a proper steak.

Instead, I’ve come to realize that though living in quarantine is a big change, it didn’t change who I am. If anything, as the world came to a halt, so did my motivation. Writing this article, for instance, has taken me twice as long as it normally would. Words don’t flow as easily as they once did, and distractions—like worrying about my dad, who is currently living alone in Ottawa, or seeing breaking news reports on the latest number of cases and projected duration of this pandemic—seem more powerful and plentiful. 

While I’m still getting work done, albeit much more slowly, the tasks that used to be challenging now feel nearly impossible. Before the pandemic, if I wanted to attempt a particular recipe, I would make a specific grocery list and outing to get ingredients. The idea of shopping for food as a leisurely activity now feels like a flippant luxury of an entirely different time. These days, the process of planning, purchasing and preparing food is a new source of stress for me—not a way of managing my anxieties. So to cope, I’ve reverted back to my staples: canned beans used for the handful of Indian recipes I know (or simply added to a salad), frozen pizza, eggs and milk. 

Rather than attempting to keep up with Insta-cooks, I put my efforts towards occasionally trying meal delivery kits, many which have a discount on your first box. When I did a one-week trial of Goodfood, for example, it offered a way of mixing up my mundane menu, without the added burden of figuring out groceries or adapting a meal plan when my local store is running low on stock. In an attempt to help local businesses struggling during the pandemic, I’ve also bulk-ordered dishes from restaurants in my neighbourhood, tucking the containers away in my freezer for the weeks to come.

Beyond that, I try and remind myself that, at its most basic, a cook is someone who prepares food for eating. Even though I’m not making anything worthy of Instagram, I meet that definition. 

I’ve always said that I don’t enjoy cooking for myself, I simply cook to survive—and during a pandemic, that’s enough. 

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