As we approach the 4th anniversary of when I stopped writing and started cooking (also known as the election of Donald J. Trump), I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about life in the kitchen.
To be clear, I did not stop writing entirely during these past four long years. I wrote birthday cards. I sent emails. I wrote extensive grocery lists, created inventories of spices and kitchen appliances (must-haves, wish-list items, never-used, extraneous space-occupiers, and if-my-ship-comes-in items), and I sent an awful lot of sympathy cards to friends and family members. But I did not do any writing of the sort that I considered my own, neither of the fiction or the non-fiction variety that has kept me sane over the past three decades and resulted in two published books and a handful of articles. I obsessively read the work of others though, marveling at their ability to keep churning it out, to sometimes turn trauma into content, to tap into their angst and rage. I was not one of those people. Instead, I cooked.
There are times in life when a behavior simply takes over, when you find yourself doing an activity which gets you through a difficult period, and you go with it, knowing better than to question said behavior, that somehow the body knows better than the mind how to pass a quadrennium.
That is what happened to me in November, 2016. I took to the kitchen.
First came the ziti. Why ziti?
The Sopranos had aired in 1997, and I’d watched the first and every episode thereafter. Carmella’s voice became second nature to me. “Ant-on-eee…” I can hear her even now, shrill and annoying, pinging in my ears. For some strange reason, I related deeply to Carmela Soprano. And when a friend or relative died, Carmella made baked ziti. I can only assume that in the Italian American culture of New Jersey in the late 1990’s, nothing said comfort food like baked ziti. I am not Italian, nor do I live in New Jersey. But a cheesy, baked pasta dish is pure comfort food and I craved comfort more than anything. My body knew what to do. On November 9, 2016, I made the ziti. By inauguration day, 2017, I had made six different varieties of ziti. I had also gained 5 pounds. I am not a ziti purist; the best (most comforting) has sausage, and the best sausage is pork. But after the 5 pound gain, I often opted for chicken sausage instead.
Next came the cutlet. I had never before made a cutlet, but soon there wasn’t a cutlet I hadn’t attempted, and multiple times. Pork, chicken, even veal (and I gave up veal decades ago!). I switched up the cuts of meat, the purveyors, the methods of pounding, instruments for pounding, flour vs. no flour, panko vs. any other breadcrumb, egg whites vs. whole eggs. I served them on a bed of arugula, I served them with mozzarella and parmesan and spaghetti. I never tired of the simple cutlet, its outcome depending entirely on my own restraint.
I boosted my skills with fancy new kitchen tools. The sous vide machine proved invaluable and changed tough meat preparation permanently, while the Instant Pot felt more like a 21st century version of a Stone Soup tureen, generating millions of unreadable, ad-laden blog posts and perhaps four worthy recipes. (Food blogs are a pet peeve of mine.) The Instant Pot does a decent chicken curry and an outstanding pulled pork, but takes up an enormous amount of space and stinks up the house. Overall, the irony of figuring out where to store both my pressure cooker and my slow cooker does not escape me. The immersion blender remains a personal favorite, but my first one died young and required immediate replacement. The good ones are pricey.
I learned to flip an egg last year. During Covid. I’m not a flipper by nature. The act involved a few mishaps and a lot of cleaning, and I would not say that I’m a pro, by any means. But I like that I proved to be more open-minded than I ever knew. So many years settling for sunny side up or scrambled, when I wanted over-easy. Was it my own fear? Or simple complacency?
If we’re in for another quadrennium of this administration, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I suspect cooking alone might not get me through. I remember that my therapist’s therapist couldn’t get out of bed for a month after the election in 2016, so I like to think my coping/cooking was relatively resourceful and effective. The 5 pounds eventually turned into 10, but it didn’t turn into 50. One thing I know now is how to imagine the worst.
The next project could be: cookbook for the apocalypse. But hopefully not.