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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Cooking through a Crisis

California Eggs Benedict with Our Fresh Eggs

This is a difficult time for us all. But those with mental illnesses are particularly susceptible to negative effects of isolation, disrupted routines, and a lack of usual coping mechanisms. Depression and anxiety can worsen in uncertainty, and a ban on community support systems doesn't help. I no longer have weekly soccer and hockey games, which always make me feel good physically and emotionally, while having fun with my friends. No laughter and beers in the locker room. Monthly potluck with my oldest friends cancelled. No snowboarding on the weekend with my husband. No monthly lunch with my gramma. My usual therapy sessions are now over the phone. Twice a week, I lie in our guest bedroom, one of my dogs snuggled up to me (they seem to have each picked a human to follow/snuggle/whine at at all times), and pretend I can't hear my husband on the phone or playing video games downstairs. For the most part, we've been enjoying each other's company. We're learning how to be together but separate, both in our own worlds, but I don't have a lot of time and space to myself anymore.

One thing I can still do when I'm anxious is cook. The process of meal-planning gives me control in a time when I don't have much of it. I have actual lists of the meals I can make from the food in my kitchen (I currently have 25). I also keep a running grocery list for my once-a-week shop when we run out of something essential, like coffee, milk, or beer. Ever since I was anorexic as a teenager, planning out meals has been a way for me to calm down. Back then, I was obsessed with poring over the contents of our pantry and fridge, planning for meals for other people without eating them myself, and strategizing what I could make with the fewest calories - beans, soup, dry cereal. Now I don't think so much about the calories, but I still obsess over meal-planning. During the week, it's common for me to keep on hand several super quick-and-easy dishes, but now, I've thrown myself into the process of cooking during this pandemic. We were already pretty well stocked - I always make sure to have beans and lots of grains and pasta on hand, my favorite Cabot cheddar cheese, tortillas, and whatever veggies have come from our CSA, plus, the eggs our chickens give us daily. There are the remainder of last summer's veggies and usually a few frozen meals in our freezer. And now it's become a daily game, planning out meals for both of us during busy work days, making soups and stews that will last us through lunches all week, dinners that highlight whatever fresh veggies we have, rich and indulgent dishes to distract from this unpredictable world. My husband is actually a great cook, and occasionally takes over in the kitchen (when I ask him to), but the planning pretty much falls to me.

My parents were never big cooks; my dad can handle a grill, though mostly doesn't know what to do with my black bean burgers or portobella mushrooms. My mom has a few dishes she does, pretty much all with meat, which I don't eat. When I announced I was now a vegetarian at age nine, my mother said I'd have to cook for myself. And so I did. I started out by frying an egg and eating it with most of the veggie sides my mom made. Then I expanded to pastas and rice, eventually learning to make soups from a cookbook from a long-gone vegetarian cafe in Montpelier, and experimenting with tofu and tempeh. My mom likes to say that cooking skipped a generation; her mother makes meatloaf and prime rib and famous Yorkshire pudding on Christmas. Whenever my brother or I scored a hockey or soccer goal, our grandmother would make us her signature apple pie.

My senior year of college I had a kitchen in my apartment and, most nights, would come home after class and cross-country practice and make myself or friends a good meal. It was part of my unwinding and would give me leftover lunches for days. I started doing Thursday night "family dinners," where a good group of friends would gather and cook together in my kitchen. Every week it turned into a raucous party after dinner. I ran the show, my friend Maura was sous chef, and a host of other regulars either pitched in or stayed out of the way. In my twenties, I relished making big meals for my roommates and boyfriend. We all loved growing and making food and ate well. Once my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I moved into an apartment of our own, we started a weekly potluck that grew into upwards of twenty people crammed into our small apartment in downtown Burlington, VT every week. Friends starting bringing their friends, and soon we were often introduced as "those potluck people I told you about." We had a different theme each week, at first cultural, until we couldn't think of a single other global cuisine we hadn't covered and started going rogue, with themes like "apples" and "beer" and, for Halloween, "things that look gross but taste delicious." I still love cooking for friends and now have a monthly potluck with a few of my oldest friends and their partners. For me, cooking is community, and sharing food is like giving love. But now that there's no one else to cook for, just my husband and me, cooking is still a way I show my love, a way to connect to someone else, to feed them. The planning and execution of meals has fallen to me in this crisis and I've embraced it.

I've stocked our kitchen with supplies for some of my favorite meals - pasta e ceci (a regular go-to), white bean tomato bake, curries, enchiladas, linguine with lemon, breadcrumbs, and eggs. Yesterday I experimented by making a big pot of minestrone. I also flipped through a soup cookbook I got for Christmas and flagged a few other soups I want to make - cheddar artichoke bisque, lentil soup, chickpea stew. Because I can't find tofu anywhere (right up there with toilet paper on everyone's hoarding list, I guess), I'll be making a seitan stir-fry (all I could find was "chicken-style" seitan and I'm not sure what that means) with shitake mushrooms and the baby bok choy from our CSA tonight. We also have lots of carrots, so I'll be making my roasted carrot and chickpea cous cous this week, inspired by the classic dish I ate so frequently in Tunisia (not resembling the dry and bland cous cous often served in America). The planning, chopping, roasting and sauteeing give me something to focus on, to calm myself, something worthwhile to do. In the absence of others to feed, I can feed myself and my husband, I can make that small contribution towards our welfare and feel purposeful in a time of chaos. I can cook, at least.

What are you making?

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