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Quarantine cooking is about more than just feeding yourself

Cooking and baking provide entertainment and community as well as sustenance.

Home cooking isn’t just for sustenance, but entertainment and community.
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Last week, it seemed like everyone I knew started baking: My Instagram feed was filled with loaves of sourdough, raspberry scones, blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies, Nutella banana bread. I’m not much of a baker, but I joined in, too. So far I’ve made cream cheese-topped brownies, scallion biscuits, and banana bread, and I have focaccia in my future.

I’m seeing more cooking, too. My Twitter feed has been filled with friends sourcing recipe ideas and inspiration from their peers while Instagram stories are full of home cooks showing off the dishes they’ve been making in solitude in their kitchens: Long-simmering stews, braised short ribs, elaborate lasagnas, chocolate chip cookies.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through the US, and the world is increasingly practicing social distancing to slow the spread of the disease, millions of Americans are spending a lot more time in their homes than they used to. With shelter-in-place orders in many states, work-from-home directives from many employers, and many public spaces such as theaters, museums, bars, and restaurants all shut down, people are turning to cooking while self-quarantined not just for sustenance but for comfort and entertainment, too.

Food writers and home cooking experts are rising to the occasion, offering home cooks resources and recipes, answering their questions, and creating new spaces just to talk and bond about cooking and baking. Publications like the New York Times Cooking section and Bon Appétit have been offering curated collections of recipes that can be made with pantry ingredients while people are staying home in quarantine and avoiding shopping.

Samin Nosrat, the cookbook writer and host of Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, recently launched a pop-up podcast called Home Cooking, where she and cohost Hrishikesh Hirway answer listener questions about how to cook creatively with whatever pantry ingredients they have at home. “Our goal with the podcast is simply to spread a little joy, perhaps a little cooking knowhow, and to ease some anxiety for people who might be lost in the kitchen,” Nosrat said over email. “The two of us are so privileged in so many ways — we are housed, fed, employed, cared for — and it just feels right to share some positivity and warmth with the world in a time of global crisis.”

While I’ve been stuck in my apartment, cooking and baking have become my outlet to channel all my fears and anxieties, and I’m far from alone. Sure, part of it is functional: We have to eat, and restaurants are shut down — other than for delivery and pickup orders — so home cooking is simply necessary. Even for those of us who cooked regularly before the term “social distancing” arrived in our lexicon, we’re still cooking more meals at home than we might have in the past — I used to have lunch at my office every day, for instance, but now I’m cobbling together lunches with whatever’s in my fridge on weekdays while I work from home.

But home cooking and baking also function as a way to pass the hours and feel productive, a form of entertainment when many other activities — movie theaters, museums, concerts, bars — are closed or canceled. Not everyone has more free time as a result — parents, for instance, have their hands full with schools and daycares are closed — but many of the quarantined Americans who do have newfound time on their hands are using it to take on more labor- and time-intensive cooking projects that they might not have otherwise attempted, since they have nowhere to go and therefore plenty of time at home to tend to their stew all day, make pasta from scratch, or bake their own bread.

Jenna Golden, 36, a consultant in Washington, DC, agrees: “Right now, there are a lot of unknowns and many of us are feeling a complete lack of control. Cooking and baking have been productive activities, and something that I have been able to enjoy even with the scary backdrop of a global crisis,” Golden says. “It’s my slice of normal amid an incredibly abnormal time.”

I’m also a highly anxious person, and there are a lot of uncertainties with the coronavirus pandemic. If I’m idle too long, it’s easy to start ruminating and go down a panic spiral. But when I’m cooking, I can’t do that, simply because I’ll mess up the recipe. If I don’t pay close attention to what I’m doing, I’ll get the proportion of ingredients wrong for the dough or burn the meat. Cooking forces me to focus on the task at hand instead of watching cable news or scrolling through the infinite loop of increasingly horrifying updates on Twitter. (I mean “force” in the most literal sense; my hands are covered in flour, so it physically prevents me from touching my phone.) In a way, cooking serves as a form of mindfulness: You can only focus on one thing, and you have to be fully present to get it right.

Nosrat agrees that cooking can serve as a way to distract yourself from anxieties about the world at large: “It’s a lot more pleasant to spend my brain power thinking of what I want to cook later today or tomorrow, or even next week than it is to fall into a pit of anxiety or worry,” she says.

So much of what’s happening right now is out of our control: We can follow the CDC guidelines and practice social distancing and wash our hands and stay home and donate to relief funds, but it’s still hard not to watch the news and feel powerless. The number of cases keeps climbing every day. Our normal lives have been put on hold indefinitely. We have no idea when we’ll be able to see our friends and family in person again, travel, attend weddings, or even enjoy a visit to a favorite restaurant. For those of us who love planning out every detail of our schedules in advance, this kind of uncertainty is incredibly frustrating. There’s nothing we can do about that — but at least making a braised pork shoulder is a way to soothe our nerves and feel like we have a tiny slice of power over something in our lives, no matter how small that may be.

“I relish having control over situations, and I think right now, that is manifesting itself differently for a lot of people,” says Maya Kosoff, 27, a freelance writer in Brooklyn. “For me, it means cooking and baking. It’s both practical in the sense that it lets me provide something necessary and tangible for people — I gave my sister a stockpile of frozen soups I made a couple of weeks ago — as well as letting me imagine that I have some semblance of control in a situation that is very much outside of my control.”

Sharing food, as Kosoff did with her sister, as well as sharing food experiences can also help create a sense of community while we’re socially isolated. While we can’t leave our homes and see our friends in real life, we can gather on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to discuss what we’re cooking and swap recipe ideas. Talking about cooking has become the new online support group — something we share while we all try to get through this strange, scary time together. Helen Rosner, a food writer for the New Yorker, asked her Twitter followers for their questions about home cooking and grocery shopping during quarantine and answered them in a new quarantine cooking column. Cookbook writer Emily Stephenson announced on Twitter that she was starting a zine collecting pantry-friendly recipes and asking other food writers to submit ideas.

“I do think that there is some measure of comfort in sharing food, even virtually or in absentia, for lots of people,” says Nosrat. “I have been taking a lot of pleasure in putting my skills to good use, cooking for neighbors who can’t do so for themselves, making a big batch of beans or soup and sharing, or just telling others what to cook with what they have on hand.”

Freelance writer Vivian Lee started a low-key food blog, cowritten with several friends, to talk about the things they are cooking at home during this period of isolation. There’s no pressure to have perfectly written posts or high-quality food photos: The whole endeavor is for fun, an outlet to channel their stress and talk to each other that’s not about being productive. “I kept seeing people on social media saying that this time of social distancing/quarantining would be a ‘perfect’ time to be ‘productive’ like finish writing a novel, start to read a 1,000-page book, get fit, etc,” Lee explained over email. It “felt like a lot of pressure when my emotional energy has already been tapped out every day worrying about my communities, my friends, and my family’s health and safety.”

For Lee, the food blog has been an outlet for creativity and channeling her nervous energy, but it has also become a new way to keep in touch with friends while maintaining social distance. “We chat about food, we talk about how we’re all feeling, and it is a way to check up on each other, too,” says Lee. “I love when we comment on each other’s posts and inspire one another to cook what we’ve been blogging about. It’s been a nice supportive constant in a very uncertain time.”

Kosoff has also used new tools, like Instagram Live, to connect with people over cooking and recipes. Recently, while baking pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, she decided to livestream her baking process on Instagram and chatted with her followers while doing so. “It’s weird to basically cosplay the Barefoot Contessa, but it was fun and definitely made me feel less lonely,” says Kosoff. “The response was great — there were 115 people who tuned in, according to Instagram, and people interacted in the comments, telling me what they were planning to bake or cook this week or asking questions about how I’ve been doing.”

Even though we have to keep six feet of space between ourselves and other people, some are still using cooking as a way to connect with people IRL while maintaining a safe distance. Golden has started hand-delivering her baked goods to friends and neighbors, doing what she calls “distanced deliveries.” “I’ll bake things and then go out on a long walk and drop off goodies on doorsteps,” she says. “It’s a way for me to get some fresh air and also bring a little joy to friends and family during this uncomfortable time.”

Cooking itself may be a solo activity, but during this period of social distancing, it has also served as a tool to bring communities together in new ways — even when they can’t gather together for a meal. “We’re all looking for slices of happiness, and cooking and baking during quarantine have allowed that to happen both online and offline,” says Golden.

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