Quarantine Cooking Forced Me to Chill in the Kitchen

Isn’t this how your family eats homemade spaghetti? Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

In the olden days (February), I was a very frequent grocery shopper. I made big trips. I made small trips. I made late-night trips and early morning trips. Often, I made emergency trips while cooking dinner. I needed another onion. I needed urgent oregano. My boyfriend would urge me to just deal with the ingredients we already had, but I could not hear him because I was already on my way out the door.

No, I did not want to substitute kale for collard greens. I mean, sure, of course, if you are willing to accept the threat of mediocrity, you can swap one hearty green for another, but then you’d have to live with the knowledge that your dinner maybe could have been slightly better.

It’s not that I demand perfection of my cooking. On the contrary. I burn everything, all the time. I am impatient and easily distracted. I pathologically under-salt. No matter how many YouTube videos I watch, I still dice onions incorrectly. But where I excel is extreme effort. Work is suffering; life is pain. If a task is annoying or inconvenient, I will do it. Inconvenience is my wheelhouse. Irrational tenacity is my secret weapon. I will always go to one more grocery store — and in my Brooklyn neighborhood, there are many grocery stores — because that is how I win.

I have been accused of being “very rigid,” but I would suggest that is a mischaracterization. My goal is not to follow recipes, like a sheep. My goal is to realize a vision. My vision, Marcella Hazan’s vision — it doesn’t matter. If the vision demands fresh mint, I need at least to know I tried to get it. One thing I like so much about dinner is that you can, with at least some degree of frequency, make it come out the way you want.

In many ways, I have failed to live up to my own expectations of adulthood, which is mostly to say that I do not own a tailored suit and also am not in the original broadway cast of Rent. Cooking in a small New York City kitchen, though, is exactly as I’d imagined it. I am competent. I am in total control. I am mincing garlic to the tender strains of Terry Gross.

The problem with total control, though, is that it also makes everything your fault. You can always try harder. It was annoying and exhausting, all this trying, and then, all of a sudden, the pressure to try stopped. The world collapsed. The only thing you were supposed to try to do was not leave the house.

We started shopping once a week, and ate what we had, and if that was gone, then we ate something else. Usually, it was good. Sometimes, it was not. This could use a lime, I would think, and then I would keep eating. There was a pandemic! I wasn’t running out in the rain for one stupid lime.

Ideally, I would have then discovered that in fact, with a little ingenuity and a can-do attitude, I could make even better meals using only what I had on hand, but I mostly didn’t. Instead, I made a lot of dinners that were slightly worse. I kept running out of onions. I learned that 100 percent whole-wheat cakes are indeed rather dense. Nothing was “good,” but everything was fine. I came to like my new culinary standards because they were very low. Extreme effort was now dangerous, so I got to stop.

It is hard to advocate for giving up in general, but kitchen-wise, it is kind of great. It is like trading jeans for the Spandex hug of leggings: Nobody’s going to praise you for your style, but they can’t say you aren’t wearing pants.

Now, we can go to the grocery store with some regularity again. Except for the masks, the shopping experience is much like in those olden days, but I am not. I am “chill” now. “I am so chill now,” I like to tell my boyfriend, chill-ly washing greens for a salad. The recipe calls for romaine, but we don’t have any. Spinach will be fine.

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