Lessons learned from a year of quarantine cooking (and eating)

Hands shaping ball of dough on countertop
Photo: Laurence Mouton (Getty Images)

“March 2020.” Those words conjure up something in all of us. It’s a before/after delineation, the pinpointable moment when our lives all became very different. Naturally, one big way we experienced that change was through the food we shopped for, prepared, and ate. Whether your dietary decisions during this time have been driven by restlessness or grocery shortages or newly constrained budgets, chances are you’ve come away from a year in quarantine with some formative culinary takeaways. Here’s what we learned about our own relationships to food during that time.

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Food is now a more thoughtful exercise all around

A year ago, I left the office for what I thought was a cup of coffee and ended up like the guy in the Springsteen song who went out for a ride and never went back. Since then, my primary officemates have been my dog, Joe, and my computer, through which, via the magic of Slack and Google Meet, I see the faces and hear the voices of my coworkers, two of whom I have yet to meet in person. (I’ve also gotten to know their pets.)

Like many people, I thought I would use all my extra time at home to cook elaborate meals and improve my chopping skills. That has not happened. Instead, apart from a few experiments with new recipes that strike my fancy, I still resort to the same few things I always cooked: roast chicken; waffles; pasta with olive oil, garlic, and broccoli rabe. Every week I still make a pot of yogurt and a baking sheet of granola to eat for breakfast. Sometimes I go through phases of baking bread for toast and peanut butter sandwiches (not sourdough, though). Most of the novelty in the kitchen has come from the meal kits that my partner, Jeff, has recently become addicted to.

But I have become a lot more aware of the food world outside my own kitchen. That may seem odd, since, even before the pandemic, it was part of my job to follow food news. This year, though, turned me into more of a participant than an observer. I joined my neighborhood’s mutual aid brigade and began shopping for and delivering groceries and supplies to people who, for various reasons, couldn’t go out themselves. It was quite touching to follow the conversations on WhatsApp and track the flow of money on Venmo: people who had the time, money, and ability were so willing to help those who didn’t.

The flow of money also extended to takeout. Before, I would avoid delivery fees and just eat at a restaurant or pick the food up myself, but now that was no longer an option. I started to pay closer attention to who I was paying those delivery fees to. Which meant no more third-party apps. Which meant a lot more meals from restaurants in my neighborhood, especially the ones that were in trouble or were donating profits to good causes.

I know it’s good to be more thoughtful about these sorts of things and I hope it’s a habit I’ll continue when I can go back to restaurants, but virtue is not really much of a reward. It’s not really the food I miss. Eating this year has been very lonely. I miss cramming into a booth at a bar with a group of friends. I miss sneaking off to lunch at a diner with a coworker for a good gossip. I miss spending an afternoon hanging around the coffee shop, eavesdropping and watching various small dramas play out. I miss holiday dinners. I can’t wait till it all comes back. —Aimee Levitt, associate editor

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Aldi is a savior

Before I landed a job as a staff writer here at The Takeout, I was a a pizzamaker for a long stretch of time. My life was making food. Now my life is writing about food. I do think kitchen burnout is real (this includes for home cooks), and I’m still slowly recovering from years of preparing meals for hours on end, five or six days a week. Thankfully the enjoyment of cooking for me and my fiancée is slowly returning, but during the shelter-in-place phase of our lives last year, I relied mainly on one place: Aldi.

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Aldi is good for two reasons. The first is that it is really, really, affordable. We were whittled down to just my income for a while, and making that stretch for two people on a restaurant worker’s pay wasn’t easy. It’s still hard for me to think about. I dreaded going to the checkout counter, until I realized that the bill wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated it might be.

Second, Aldi also has a lot of pre-made food that is absolutely delicious. Like any store, not everything’s a winner, but the low prices mean that the stakes aren’t super high. The packaged entrees are good: I loved the pork tenderloin in apples (we have Thai chicken in the fridge I’m excited about trying), the vegan meatballs are great (even though we’re not a vegan household we love them), and the red bag frozen chicken patties easily rival, if not flat-out beat, fast food fried chicken sandwiches. Plus the cheese section is great for the price too.

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Even when our income situation improves, as it has been, steadily, Aldi will still be a staple, and I will never walk through its doors without feeling grateful. Both as a burned out restaurant cook, and a burned out home one. —Dennis Lee, staff writer


Find meditative cooking projects to avoid burnout

I was already working from home before the pandemic started, partially because a good portion of my job occurs in my kitchen, and partially because I live a little over 700 miles from the office. January and February 2020 were filled with foods for joyous times, like a Moravian Friendship Cake to be shared with friends, or a Beef Wellington Pot Pie for an intimate dinner party. (Remember those?) Then, within a span of a few days, all the restaurants closed, all the groceries disappeared, and my kids started working from home, too. It was a very exciting time to be a food writer.

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Even though my “office” looked the same, everything about my job had to change, because the world had. In the first several weeks I wrote recipes that used lentils, cabbage, potatoes, and other cheap ingredients with long shelf lives, interspersed with “cooking projects” like banana pudding eclairs and air-fried bomboloni that I hoped would keep people busy and distract them from the real world. I made banana bread, because I was all but legally obligated to, but I did not make sourdough, because I don’t have the emotional fortitude to walk anyone through that shit. I tried to come up with nice lunches that would make being stuck at home less sad, like salads and quick pastas. I was exhausted.

Eventually the madness became normal, supply chains were fixed, and groceries came back. Restaurants started to reopen. We learned to live and function in this mess. I no longer have to plan my entire weekly diet around whatever recipes I’m developing, which has been nice; on the days I’m not cooking for work, I’m usually making really simple things that don’t keep me tied to the kitchen. But the biggest change in my cooking, which will carry on long past the end of this pandemic, are the weekend cooking projects (like flaky almond pancakes and cafe con leche cake) that aren’t as much complicated as they are meditative. Things that keep me in the kitchen not because I have to be there, but because of the quiet solitude and the calm that comes with repetitive motions. I don’t know how my day-to-day will change once I get my vaccine, but I do know that I’ll be getting through whatever’s thrown at us next with globs of butter and gallons of cream. —Allison Robicelli, staff writer 

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It’s okay—good, even—to eat things you enjoy

If a massive volcano arose out of Lake Michigan and covered Chicago in magma and ash right now, my biggest concern would be hiding my deranged pandemic journal from future archeologists. I started the journal on Day One of quarantine, and I’ve kept it up nearly every day since. Most entries are just “ran out of canned corn, used creamed, didn’t work, very bad,” or “HOW ARE WE LIVING LIKE THIS I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE LIVING LIKE THIS!!!!!!”

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Some of the entries are funny, like the time I figured out how to pull my underpants so far up my butt crack that my lower half looked like an upside-down Jay Leno. (I live alone.) Some of them are sad, like the time I cried because I hadn’t been in the same room as another human being for 28 days. (I live ALONE.) But the entry from March 24, 2020 really stands out to me. It reads:

“Did crossword, made Julia Turshen’s Afternoon Cake. Poured half-and-half on top of cake because dry and sounded good. Listened to MARVIN GAYE BAYBEE!!!!! Turns out, can pour half-and-half on whatever you want and no one will arrest you. Cried a little.”

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The act of pouring half-and-half on top of a slightly dry cake and mixing it up into a crumbly slurry and listening to Marvin Gaye, Baybee! sounds like a weird, sad single person thing to do. And it is—but it also tasted really good. It sounded good at the time, and I ate it, and it gave me pleasure. And that day became a little easier than the day before.

Eating for pleasure is hard for me. There are a lot of reasons for that. I write about food, I put my whole entire being into preparing food for my loved ones, but years of living in a trash society makes restriction my default. But with nearly every other source of pleasure stripped away and near-total isolation over the course of 365 days (I LIVE ALONE!!!), I was left to grapple with the fact that I could eat whatever sounded good—cake with half-and-half, cereal for breakfast, even (egad!) pasta for dinner—and I could enjoy those things and feel good about them and not have to punish myself even a little bit. 365 days of silence forced me to sit with food, acknowledging it as both my greatest joy and my biggest fear. Tonight, I’m having a burrito.—Lillian Stone, staff writer

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Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

Associate editor of The Takeout. Chicagoan. Owned by dog.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

Allison Robicelli is a writer, recipe czar, former professional chef, author of four (quite good) books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Tweet me for recipe help: @Robicellis.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

DISCUSSION

I lost my fulltime job when I asked for time off when my father died and I was “let go” after 12 years. I found housing with a friend who didn’t really cook and part of my rent was preparing food for us everyday when I was unemployed. I have both grown a lot as a cook and honestly it kept my sanity and self worth going when I was at a pretty low point after losing my health insurance and anti-psychotics while dealing with the grief of losing family members to the pandemic. Cooking and cooking blogs are a huge reason I didn’t just give up, finding even the smallest amount of self worth everyday in feeding my friend meant I had a reason to wake up at a reasonable time and find something new to try everyday when I couldn’t really see past the depression due to my body adjusting to losing the drugs that regulate my issues. I have become a better shopper, cook and manager of food waste than I would have ever imagined. Anyway thanks for existing and helping me survive this, the takeout was a weekly read and I tried a bunch of the random stuff posted here, code red pie was gross.