Going to the grocery store is nothing like going to war, but this past month, it was a kind of battle.
Most Canadians aren’t used to fighting over, say, the last carton of eggs, nor are they accustomed to empty shelves at local supermarkets: entire sections of fruits, milk, bread and frozen pizzas cleared out by hoarders stocking up on essentials and mumbling about the end of days.
And in the midst of all this stockpiling and stay-at-home boredom, as experts continue reassuring shoppers that they needn’t buy up everything in sight, a trend has emerged to save the day: quarantine cooking.
Making do with what you have
Here’s the deal: people are confused. No one knows what to buy, what to cook, how to make their food “stretch,” or how to keep meals cheap when they’ve lost income from layoffs. There’s even an advice column that’s sprung up in The New Yorker, for the purpose of alleviating our collective disorientation.
Knowing this, Wendy Baldwin, a 44-year-old mother from Texas, started a Facebook group called “Quarantine Cooking and Survival,” in which members share quick, easy and cheap recipes to help each other survive both the COVID-19 quarantine as well as its chaperoning financial crisis.
“Honestly, I started the group because I have so many friends who are struggling to find their normal food staples at the supermarket, and others who are accustomed to eating in restaurants, rather than cooking,” she told HuffPost Canada. “They’re all at a loss right now.”
In her friend group, she’s known as the cook/prepper hybrid who loves to put meals together and often buys food in bulk. In just a few hours of Baldwin starting the group, it racked up more than 200 new members.
Everyone started sharing low-cost, easy-to-make recipes, from “walking tacos” and no-egg cakes to chicken pot pies and peach cobblers made from their kids’ leftover lunches.
“We’re all either working from home, or at home and not receiving a paycheque — everyone is worried about their income,” she said. “I think people are worried and wanting to plan. And it feels good to help others.”
The kitchen classroom
Parents, too, are trying to manage this new reality.
At home in Ontario’s York Region, Mari A., 30, has been keeping her five kids busy by teaching them to cook. She’s a stay-at-home mom, and has taken advantage of the occasion — school is cancelled until further notice — to entertain her two-year-old triplets, four-year-old and nine-year-old by treating cooking as math exercises.
“My nine-year-old was just learning fractions. So I’ll phrase recipes as questions: how many quarter scoops of flour do we need to make one cup?” she explained. So far, they’ve made fruit salads, pies, cobblers, pancakes, and Colombian hot chocolate together.
“I want them not to conform to gender roles and to be self-sufficient by learning to cook,” she said. “But it’s also bonding time, and I’ve been able to help them learn at the same time while they’re off school.”
The Instagram Chefs helping you stretch your supply
Facebook isn’t the only virtual kitchen. Instagram, too, has undergone a nutritional makeover, and the hashtag #quarantinecooking is saturated with more food images than usual.
“The views on my Instagram stories have doubled,” said chef Romain Avril, best known for his appearances as a judge on “Top Chef Canada All-Stars.” When people started staying home, he started up an Instagram cooking show called “Quarantine Kitchen,” in which he shares easy recipes for people to replicate at home.
“I’ve been focusing on using very simple and basic ingredients, without any complicated equipment, so that everyone can do it,” he told HuffPost Canada.
The response so far has been good — people have thanked him, followed up to update him on how the food tasted and admitted the recipes are keeping them alive.
“I hope it’s not just a phase, because there are benefits to cooking at home. It’s cheaper, and there’s something about sharing that means something,” he said. “Plus, people tend to be more sustainable cooking at home. They waste a lot less.”
Like Avril, chef Jessica Tom, the American chef and food writer who won the fourteenth season of the show “Food Network Star,” has given her Instagram a little update.
“Right now, we’re faced with totally new cooking challenges, so I’ve pivoted my content creation to tackling those issues and being of service to others,” Tom told HuffPost Canada over email. “We’re dealing with limited supplies, tighter schedules while working from home or homeschooling, immunity-boosting needs, self-care considerations ... plus, lots of people are cooking more meals, for more people, than they ever have before.”
On Instagram and on her website, Tom has been sharing recipes that can help her followers to “stretch their food supply,” reduce waste, and make nutritious meals with what they have.
“To me, quarantine cooking encapsulates all those challenges,” she said.
Quarantine cooking is also a cure for boredom
As it happens, not all who’ve participated in the trend have done so out of urgency. Some are doing it out of a desire to confront our suddenly shared, monotonous reality, head on.
“We’re just so bored,” said Ronald Joseph, 22, who has been passing the time social distancing at his boyfriend’s apartment in Toronto, working from home, cooking meals, and poring over videos from Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel. “Cooking is literally the only thing that we have to look forward to.”
Cooking together has also helped the couple bond and build on their communication skills. He rattles off a list of some of their most recent masterpieces: spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, carnitas tacos, and smashed chickpea salad. “We’re doing something together that’s a little different each day.”
Isabel B. Slone, a fashion writer from Toronto, is also bored. “I normally cook a lot at home, but I’ve been using this as an opportunity to go full-on Barefoot Contessa,” Slone, 30, told HuffPost Canada over the phone.
Her boyfriend, who worked at a fine dining restaurant, was just laid off; she, too, lost her part-time job. “There’s just so much more time to put effort into recipes these days.”
Cooking has also become a sort of getaway. “I use cooking as a distraction, normally, but nowadays, there’s more to be distracted from,” she said. Now, all seven days have been hijacked by “excessive Alison Roman recipes,” from spanakopita and Cuban pork roasted in fresh orange juice to jam thumbprint cookies and glazed lemon tea cakes.
“I’m making Katharine Hepburn brownies tonight,” she said. (The famous American actress, it turns out, could also make a mean chocolate brownie.)
The homemade quarantine cooking game show
You must create your own recipe. No cheating by searching the internet. The following ingredients must be used, unless you do not have them: any meat in your fridge (exceptions made for vegetarians); two cans of anything from your pantry; one can mushroom soup; pickles or relish; potato chips or crackers; almonds/pecan or peanuts; strawberry, blueberry or raspberry jam; honey …
These are the instructions devised by Mary Jo Robertson, a 59-year-old woman from Markham, Ont. who created a virtual quarantine cooking game on WhatsApp to entertain herself and her friends.
She called it “Mo Jo Virtual Coronacooking,” and invited a group of 45 fifty-something women to take part in a challenge inspired by “Fridge Wars,” the TV show where celebrity chefs compete using only ingredients found in a family’s kitchen.
“I asked 45 friends to participate, but only five joined — thank God, though, because I’m not too computer savvy,” she admits. The women who did participate began the game at 11 a.m. on Sunday, and filmed themselves cooking whatever meals they were able to think up on the spot. It’s an exercise in two ways: a lesson in resourcefulness in crisis, as well as a way to pass the slow-crawling time.
“It’s something fun to do on a Sunday afternoon, when social distancing and boredom has got you down,” Robertson tells HuffPost Canada. “We all had such a good time, and we plan to do it again this Sunday. I have 11 ladies signed up.”