Right now, in cities across America, restaurants and bars are completely empty; people circle grocery stores in surgical masks, searching stripped-down aisles for yeast or San Marzano tomatoes, organic eggs or unsalted butter.
We’re all hunkered in our homes, and those of us who aren’t just binge-watching bad reality TV and going completely sideways from isolation have resorted to trying new things to pass the time, like growing grungy beards and learning what TikTok actually is.
Like many people, I have locked myself in the kitchen. I wanted to see if I could whip together a fine dish or two that I might have otherwise ordered out to eat — or even just conjure something familiar.
Yet soon after I chopped a few wrinkled veggies and boiled a pot of water, I realized that I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I hadn’t paid close attention to anyone — not my mom or my grandpa, a former roommate who knew what he was doing or any of my ex-girlfriends for that matter — as they whipped together their finest home-cooked meals for me over the years. I had watched them, sure, but not step-for-step.
And now, far away from them, sequestered in a shack in northern Minnesota off a frozen lake as a pandemic rages across the globe, I sincerely regret taking them (and their food) for granted.
I miss them — all of them; disease and the potential for death will do that. It makes anyone nostalgic; it makes me long for the days when the pubs were open and I could lean in and ask someone I care about, “How do you make that tomato soup so freaking good?”
The boiled water and veggies were meant for a pot of caldo de camarón — a shrimp soup my ex’s mother would make on Sundays or holidays (or whenever I begged). Unfortunately, despite all the begging, I never sat and watched her make it, which was a missed opportunity. But it’s perfect for a cold day (or a warm day with cold beer and lime); add butter and sear a bolillo — a Mexican bread — and “you’ve got it made in the shade, esé,” my grandpa Ernie says.
So, out of boredom or stupidity (maybe both) I reached out to that ex via Facebook and asked her if she’d be so kind as to share her mother’s recipe with me. She responded and sent it over — she was always nice; I was the fool, and probably still am.
I then shut off the water, shoved the wilted veggies into the fridge and trekked to the store to get a few more ingredients I probably should've thought of. I needed peppers in adobo sauce, cilantro and, of course, the beer.
When I got back to the kitchen, I followed the recipe — word for word and step-by-step. Though it didn’t come out exactly like my ex’s mom’s caldo (I’m told these things never quite do), making it taught me a valuable lesson: Stop taking so much for granted.
The next day, still on a cooking kick, I reached out to another ex — the one whose tomato soup tasted better than any I’d ever had before and since. I finally asked her what she’d added to give it that extra little something; “provolone and fresh basil,” she texted back. (We then proceeded to go on chatting about all the good food in Brooklyn and Denver, now locked behind doors and shuttered windows, and who knows when they’ll open again.)
I added them to my shopping list, made the trek, got back home and settled in. I burnt my tongue on the soup, and I’m not sure I got the ratio as perfect as she did — but it was close, and, indeed, I’ll keep trying.
Back to grandpa: He’s 84 and has oodles of recipes for me to learn, and now is as good a time to ask for them as any. He’s hunkered down in a small dusty town in New Mexico, probably driving my poor mother mad. When he’s not making fantastic beans and or a hearty stew with fish eyes, he’s climbing onto a roof — sometimes not even his — saying, “The roof needed fixing." So now we chat everyday, talking about his recipes, sports that aren’t on the tube and why he should stop climbing onto the tops of houses.
Who knows if things will go back to the way they were. Maybe they will; maybe they won’t. But one thing’s for certain: This is a fine time to reflect, to write, to exercise at home, to reach out to old friends (and maybe an ex or two with whom you’re still on friendly terms) who have served you delicious recipes and try your own hand at making them.
Humans weren’t meant to sit idly like this, and definitely not alone. But, for now, we don’t have a choice. So: Wash your hands. Text a friend. Make some caldo and, good God, just stay inside already.