There’s no tree this year. The huge box of ornaments is stowed, though I did pull out a few lights and some holiday treasures to brighten up the place. The solstice — usually a joyous occasion in my yearly calendar — found me in a bleak mood, phenomenal gas giant conjunctions and neighborhood gatherings al fresco notwithstanding. My mother’s landlady had inexplicably decided to break her lease and worry combined with not being able to be there in person rendered me a volatile mix of fury, powerlessness and dark thoughts. So much for merry and bright, though I am doing my best to keep my chin hoisted.
Compared to so many others crushed by food and housing insecurity, loss of employment and fractured social networks, I have it good. I can rail against the injustices of the world from the comfort of my abode, a nest replete with decent internet, a stocked pantry and a steady income to keep the home fires burning. I have found refuge in creative outlets such as acting and music and writing, there are cats for comfort and, of course, the constant and adoring presence of the Dearly Beloved, whose steadfastness at once enchants and maddens, if that makes any sense. If you’re married or partnered, you just might absolutely grok that.
But what has grounded me more than anything is my kitchen. My kitchen and Sam Sifton. The New York Times food editor’s emails show up in my inbox every day, dispensing his wisdom, reading my every mood, and challenging me to think out of the usual confines of the icebox, if you will. The DB is somewhat jealous of Sam. Yes, first-name basis. He’s a terrific writer who flows with Zeitgeist, oozes compassion, digs Hüsker Dü and is a compatriot, in that he shares my sacrifices — he stays home. He, more than anyone or anything (sorry, cats), has helped me stay focused, positive and productive since March. I was already culinarily competent and curious, but under Sam’s insightful tutelage, I’ve taken my skills to the next level — or two.
Sifton has at his fingertips decades of archived recipes and he shares them freely (one must subscribe). The likes of Melissa Clark, Mark Bittman, Tejal Rao and Alison Roman deal recipes like card sharps and I’m there at the table, anteing up like I’ve got all the time in the world. And I do. When I’m in the kitchen, music blaring, cats underfoot, apron-adorned, hair swept into a messy pile, time seems to stretch fluidly, a Dali-esque distortion I find pleasant and liberating. If I’d studied in school as diligently as I absorb recipes, I’d have one of those scary doctor titles before my name. The rigors of mise en place create structure and discipline that is matched elsewhere only by my job as a journalist. Chopping and measuring — far from dreary, rote tasks — provide the kind of quiet joy that defies articulation.
Meal planning and dishing up new recipes keep me sane. Sane enough to not drive to Texas and throttle miserly, mean landladies. By the time the DB crosses the threshold, the house is redolent and welcoming, and I am as content and as removed from homicidal thoughts as possible, despite being unwillingly plunged into Life During Covid.
Please dispense of any June Cleaver images you might be concocting in your mind’s eye. The potty mouth, loud rock ’n’ roll and propensity for stiff cocktails should be enough to disabuse you of that ridiculously outdated image. Remember that cooks, like anyone else, are unique. When I think of Sam Sifton cooking to Bob Mould’s righteous roar, my inward grin eclipses the sun. Surely he’d approve of the window-rattling volume emanating from my abode as Radio Moscow and the Stones keep my stockpot simmering. And Grant Green and Marvin Gaye and Ray LaMontagne and … you get the idea.
Those of us dutifully staying at home might be familiar with the weight gain known as the Covid 19. It’s somewhat inevitable, especially if your culinary adventures veer more toward breads and baking. I’ve managed to avoid that and have actually lost the Covid 19-plus. I have my ways, but eating low-fat cottage cheese and watery consommé is not the secret. Enjoying scratch cooking at home and jettisoning my ass from my desk chair with vigorous regularity have proven effective in thwarting unwanted reports from the bathroom scale’s impassive calculations.
In these first days of the wheel easing toward the light I asked for, and was granted, a couple days off. Life During Covid wearies me to my bones. Getting sunshine and filling my lungs with crisp air goes far to charge my batteries and blow out the cobwebs. Brisk walks are when I get my best thinking done. But nothing beats my kitchen for creativity, rejuvenation and contentment. That and the kind, daily e-ministrations from my therapist-guru-kitchen wizard, Mr. Sifton. It’s been the best recipe.