“We owe much to the fruitful meditation of our sages, but a sane view of life is, after all, elaborated mainly in the kitchen.”― Joseph Conrad
The COVID-19 pandemic will be a year along in a matter of days. For most of us, it has meant a fundamental rethinking of how we work and live and socialize. More of us are working remotely than ever before, and our reliance on safe social connectivity over internet chat platforms has soared. Public health orders mean indoor dining is limited as the pernicious coronavirus thrives and circulates more readily in closed environments. Foodies — and even those unsure of themselves in the kitchen — not willing to risk exposure by going out, are turning to the craft of making their own food in greater numbers. There is great comfort in it. In mise en place, there is a sense of place.
In the massive upending of life of the Before Times there is something grounding, somewhat under our control and definitely nourishing about time spent in the kitchen. As the founding editor of NYT Cooking (and now assistant managing editor) at the New York Times, Sam Sifton, wrote recently, “There’s a lot of anger circulating these days, pandemic-weary annoyance, medium-grade depression. I think it’s more important than ever that we try to believe that people are operating mostly from a position of good faith rather than bad, and to respond to the stimuli the pandemic offers us accordingly. If you can bring that attitude into the kitchen, so much the better. The job there is simple: feed people. And when we do, we can make their lives slightly better, almost every time.”
Local chefs and classes are working to make our lives better, and the national rise of the take-home meal kits has taken a foothold here, too. The end result is food, glorious food.
Cooking classes have been around forever. Julia Child’s joyful, often very funny cooking show of the 1960s and beyond comes to mind. Today there is an entire television channel devoted to cooking classes. In Telluride, classes that once took place in person have, like nearly everything else, shifted to a virtual platform. Wilkinson Public Library has been hosting Baking with Bobbi, a once-a-month demonstration from Bobbi T. Smith’s kitchen that walks participants through a selected recipe. Smith, founder of Bobbi’s Treats, coaxed January’s class through scratch chocolate cake. In March, she’ll teach you how to craft frosting flowers for your next cake, a class she calls Fun with Frosting. Smith said cooking classes satisfy a very basic need.
“It’s a need and that is to eat,” she said. “You’re not going out, so you need to make it yourself.”
Even chefs have cravings they can’t quench.
“I really miss Asian food, and hot and sour soup in particular, so I learned to make it myself,” Smith said. “I’ve made it four times now. It’s just amazing and easy. You just have to have the right ingredients.”
Stepping into the kitchen, she said, “is joyous.”
“It brings on a sigh of relief and it’s not hard on my brain,” she said. “There’s no right or wrong and the best part is, you get to eat it. Baking makes me happy.”
221 South Oak’s chef/owner Eliza Gavin also walks the adventurous through a handful of delicious explorations, though not in the context of a class per se. She and Tommy Watkinson are the stars of Youtube videos that take viewers through the steps needed to create the dishes she offers as take-home kits. Hit play on the video and create a 221 meal at home, either dinner or brunch. She’ll send the link when you link up your box.
Dinner features mussels, steak, and rum-poached bananas, accompanied with wine, while brunch is an indulgent three meals worth of Sunday morning bliss — carrot cake pancakes, eggs Benedict, candied bacon, duck confit hash, half-bottles of bubbly and the ingredients for everyone’s favorite morning cocktail, the Flatliner. (Link below.)
Cooking, Gavin said, gives people a sense of accomplishment.
“You see the results immediately,” she said. “You need to move your body and you have to eat.”
And, being in the kitchen triggers warm thoughts once the olfactory senses are engaged.
“It has so many memories for people,” she said. For Gavin the smell of a hot pan in the morning takes her straight back to her uncle’s house where he made breakfast for the family on the shore.
Even as a professional chef, she still experiences profound happiness in the kitchen, especially now that her in-house serving capacity is limited by public health orders.
“Now more than ever, I love being in the kitchen,” she said. “Now that we’re serving fewer people we’re finding that our team uses our brains more. We can take our time, take a breath a little more … it feels good.”
Tara Kelley, when she’s not working as executive director for One To One Mentoring, is an avid cook. As her Facebook friends know, her food posts incite salivation. Her lifelong passion for food and cooking is a family affair. Her mother owned a cheese shop, and samples from the shop were a nightly staple. Later, they ran an inn that served breakfast and dinner, resplendent meals that Kelley had a hand in creating. Once she had her own family, her passion trebled and dinnertime became a precious and important part of the family dynamic. Until the pandemic, she’d never taken a cooking class until Gavin’s cooking and video packages were made available.
“I have taken two of Eliza’s virtual cooking classes,” Kelley said. “I did them, one for something to do at home as I miss going out, and I also took them to learn something new. It felt special to do something different at home and to bring Eliza into my kitchen.”
And, she said, cooking, eating and entertaining are a source of comfort.
“I think during the pandemic food has become the comfort we were missing,” she said. “Food is something we can do at home and I enjoy trying new recipes and making nights special. I love to entertain. I think I miss that the most … bringing friends together and relaxing over a great meal.”
Another newcomer on the take-home kit scene is Brown Dog Pizza’s Jeff Smokevitch, the award-winning chef whose popular Detroit style pizza (and regular pies) ensure the Brown Dog pizza ovens never cool down. Although Brown Dog is solely take-out these days, the pizza joint’s popularity has never ebbed. The Detroit kit, which debuted just a couple weeks ago, was in the test phase for a year. It comes with two, par-baked, vacuum-packed crusts and all the ingredients and instructions needed to create one cheese pizza and one Brooklyn Bridge Detroit pie. They even have used, already-seasoned pans for sale, though any pan you have will do. Smokevitch said the kits are a way to bring families together.
“The kit is an activity you can do with your family or spouse,” he said.
And, getting together in the kitchen also serves a higher purpose.
“The kitchen is a refuge from what’s going on in the world today,” he said. “It’s comforting to be in the kitchen. At parties, people tend to congregate in the kitchen. Those are my best memories as a kid … in the kitchen with my mom.”
Like Gavin’s take-home kits, the Brown Dog Detroit kits have a companion instructional video filmed by Keith Hill, which launched just days ago. (Link below.)
Now that offices have largely been rendered unnecessary, taking advantage of the extra time in the day that was once spent commuting is bonus time ripe for meal planning and prepping, said Wilkinson Public Library’s Laura Colbert.
“I definitely have a little more bandwidth with the lockdown to focus on cooking,” she said.
Colbert, who filled in for Bobbi Smith’s Baking with Bobbi class this month, showed participants the ins and out of making dumplings, just in time for the Chinese New Year.
“I don’t think of myself as a foodie, so I was a little nervous, but it was fun,” she said. “What taking a class does is give people more confidence in the kitchen. It’s nice to have someone there and be able to ask questions. Hopefully I was able to show people, ‘Don’t fear the dumpling.’”
Some things about the pandemic have a discernible bright side, Sifton told NPR last April.
“We’re gathering for the purpose of sustenance, for the purpose of an almost literal communion," he said. “If you do that regularly enough, you'll see a change in your relationship to both the cooking and the people — and perhaps see a change in yourself and how you regard the world.”
Whether you consider yourself a cook or not, the need to eat is as universal as the need to breathe. Support your local restaurants with a take-out order, or challenge yourself with a kit and a video. Bon appetite!
To order a 221 South Oak dinner or brunch box, visit 221southoak.com. Search Youtube for Eliza Gavin for all her videos. Here’s a link to one of Eliza and Tommy’s videos: youtu.be/4aNBrtTGc3k
Brown Dog Pizza Detroit pizza take-home kits are available by calling 970-728-8046, or visit browndogpizza.com. Walk-up orders (no indoor dining) are taken at 110 East Colorado Ave. Please wear a mask. Watch the Keith Hill Detroit pizza instruction video starring Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch at: tinyurl.com/y8mflmp3
Learn more about Wilkinson Public Library events at telluridelibrary.org.