For our series My New Normal i wants to hear how lives, routines and minds have changed during the coronavirus outbreak – and if you plan on keeping it up post-lockdown. Do you have a new outlook on life, a new hobby, or habit? How have you adapted your life for lockdown? Let us know about your new normality by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with My New Normal in the subject line.
I didn’t react to the crisis in the way I had expected. If I were a grand literary heroine, I’d be too anxious to eat, cultivating a glamorous-sounding “ghostly pallor” while pining for normality to return. Real life is different to novels, though (who knew?!) and nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to my newfound tendency to cook and eat compulsively.
Okay, only one of those habits is new. I’ve long had a healthy appetite. But in the prelapsarian period before Covid-19 my version of cooking was standing in the kitchen eating crisps and chatting inanely while my boyfriend slaved over the stove. (Grassroots feminism in action.) Now, however, I’m elbowing him out of the way while trilling phrases like, “Perhaps we should invest in another wooden spoon!”. Yes, I’m the sort of childless monster who, unburdened by the responsibility of home-schooling, has started channelling nervous energy into making multi-course meals on weeknights.
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If it’s any consolation, my comeuppance is fast approaching – probably in the form of gout, or, alternatively, realising I can no longer fit through the door when we’re finally allowed out again. For my creations lie squarely in the comfort food genre: pasta with tomato, pasta with aubergine, various chocolatey things. Indeed, I’ve done a lot of baking, partly because I’m a sugar fiend, and partly because sweet treats are relatively easy to accomplish with store cupboard ingredients (my laissez-faire approach to cleaning out the kitchen drawers means I’ve been inadvertently stockpiling flour since 2016).
A couple of Tuesdays back – a night when I traditionally judge warming up ready-made tortellini to be a stretch – I made a batch of Swedish chokladbollar, or chocolate balls (Google these for a swift quarantine upgrade). Last week I chucked together Rachel Roddy’s dangerously easy Italian ciambella ring cake. On Saturday night, I shunned the Houseparty app for my own soirée. Guest list: me and a chocolate fondant.
Undoubtedly, my kitchen activities are largely driven by the luxury of having time on my hands. But judging by the boom in bread-making and the number of friends who’ve sheepishly confided that their days now revolve around fretting over what to eat, there’s clearly something else about Covid-19 life that’s conducive to cooking.
Most obviously, we have extra meals to make now we’re at home all day. If your food budget hasn’t become impossibly tight, meal-planning is a relatively benign way to occupy the mind; focusing on immediate, practical matters certainly beats wondering when you’re going to see your mum again.
And if you can forgive the armchair psychology, I’d say cooking is a way to come to terms with the housebound dystopia that has usurped our daily lives. The fashion journalist Jess Cartner-Morley has pointed out that revamping your wardrobe helps assert control over your home surroundings in a positive way. I reckon the effect doubles for the kitchen, seeing as it’s in many ways the nucleus of the house.
Then there’s the cooking process itself. Repetitive manual tasks are, like meal-planning, a way of staving off dark thoughts. You’re physically incapable of stress-scrolling through Twitter when you’re pounding butter and sugar together with your bare hands. Moreover, the predictability of recipes is comforting. It’s nice to know that whatever else happens, if you heat oil, garlic and tomatoes soon enough you’ll be hit by an aroma that will fill you with joy.
For that’s the main reason to cook now. Joy. Amid the ubiquitous talk about death, food is a celebration of life – and a reminder that it will return. Hopefully I won’t abandon my enthusiasm for cooking when it does. I’ve ordered a new wooden spoon now, after all.
Gwendolyn Smith is a journalist and i columnist.
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