In these times of isolation, quarantine, and social distancing, I have found solace in the delights of cooking. Picking up a new hobby during the pandemic became common as states instituted lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19, but for me, I received the chance to let my long-time passion for cooking flourish. I tirelessly honed my skills in preparation for the day I could finally share a meal with the people I cared about.
I grew up in a family whose bonds were forged in the kitchen. My grandmother, lovingly known as “Nana,” creates so many delicious meals and recipes that bring all 30+ members of our family together during holidays (this year is the exception, of course!). She is the definition of a mother and a nurturer, and to this day she is still perfecting her craft as a home chef. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting in Nana’s kitchen on a Sunday morning watching her cook scrambled eggs with chives, a simple but consistently scrumptious dish. I was always intrigued by how she seemed to effortlessly draw intense flavor from ingredients and juggle multiple bubbling stoves and pans at once.
Unsurprisingly, Nana passed her stellar cooking skills down to all five of her children, my father included. One of my aunts is especially adept at creating recipes, including tender and rich pina colada cupcakes with coconut frosting. My mom is also a fantastic home chef, but she maintains her humility and insists she is just “good at following a recipe.” I always appreciate the effort she puts into making dinner when I sit down at the table with her each night. My mom’s entrees are fantastic, and her desserts are out of this world. I have yet to master the way she makes crème Brulee and our annual Christmas dessert, the Buch de Noel (which translates to Yule Log). Looking back, I am so grateful to have grown up with a full and happy belly.
Even if the kitchen was empty, there were always reminders of how strongly food is a part of our identity. We have bookshelves lined with cookbooks, and recipe cards with tender cursive handwriting are littered through the coffee table. There’s even a specific row dedicated to cookbooks written by Ina Garten (it’s a growing collection). On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, my mom and I watch cooking shows for hours. We knew the order that our favorite shows would air: Lidia Bastianich first, then America’s Test Kitchen, followed by Cook’s Country, and finally Ming Tsai. With every chef I watch, I absorb their expert advice like a sponge, and I love how their cooking is influenced by their own culture while paying respect to how cuisine has developed over time.
When the pandemic hit, cooking shows provided a sense of comfort, a warm familiarity that was one constant during volatile, changing times. Seeing the smiling faces of Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and so many others on PBS and the Food Network reminds me that as long as we have food, we have each other, even from a distance. This holiday season especially, I found myself cooking and delivering food to my grandparents in hopes that I will be able to eat with them again in person.
Cooking at college
For so many students like me, the pandemic has vastly changed the college experience. My daily routine at the University of Connecticut is generally one of solitude; I live alone in a traditional dorm, “attend” class through online distance learning. The most social interaction I get is through my job at the campus gym. While this increased independence forces me to focus on my schoolwork and live a self-sufficient lifestyle, I cannot help but look back wistfully on the days when the campus would be bustling with students. With most of my friends either doing the semester from home or living off-campus, I appreciate the rare occasions when I spend time with others now more than ever.
Attending college this semester has truly made me appreciate the power of a meal. Once a week, my floormates and I make an effort to go out to dinner together. Even if it means taking just one hour out of our day to grab burgers or get pizza, I have come to cherish these moments because nothing makes you realize the impact of the moment we’re living in like the emotions expressed in a face-to-face conversation. Some of my closest friends are generous enough to invite me to cook at their off-campus house regularly. Acts of friendship like these make reality feel almost normal again. Being in a place with lively young people and simply asking how someone’s day went or talking about an exam they took is a luxury that I realized many people don’t have nowadays.
Using the cooking skills I learned growing up, I made a wide variety of meals for my friends during the semester. I always jumped at opportunities to demonstrate my culinary abilities, and usually one of my friends acted as my sous-chef. The meals I made were designed to feed a hungry crowd, and some of my favorite college house recipes include fettuccine alfredo, sheet pan pizza, and shrimp scampi. Since my off-campus friends don’t have extraneous time to prepare meals because they’re driving between classes and work, I gladly stepped in to fill that duty. There is something cozy, and dare I say nostalgic about cooking in a warm kitchen and sitting down to eat at a perfectly set table. Rare experiences like these evoke a warm fuzziness reminiscent of the optimism one feels in their childhood, a sense of temporary peace with unyielding hope for brighter times ahead.
Grace Brangwynne is graduate student at the University of Connecticut where she is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration. When she's not writing or editing articles, you can find Grace at the gym, reading a book, or exploring the outdoors.