The Best Thing About the Pandemic Is Cooking In My Mom’s Kitchen

Kale Pesto Pasta with Shrimp Image

On March 12th, I accidentally moved back into the house where I grew up. As concern over coronavirus went national, I drove from my small apartment in Philadelphia to North Carolina, where I’d spend a little quality time with my parents and friends, then head back to Philly in a week or two. I’ve now been here for almost two months.

At first, cooking our meals was a way for me to deal with the crushing anxiety that I felt as the situation changed daily, each hour bringing an onslaught of awful news. As a food writer, I felt powerless to do much more than stay home and send any excess income to nonprofits I trust and industry funds to support the workers at restaurants I love. Feeding my mom dinner each night felt like a tangible solution to a small need. She needed to eat. I would feed her.

I baked 5 loaves of banana bread, barely making a dent in the bags and bags of frozen, overripe bananas that my mom seemed to have been saving up for years.

“I never buy the right number of bananas,” she told me. “I always have a couple extra, so I throw them in the freezer. I didn’t realize there were so many in there.”

I cooked tangles of pasta and garlicky kale, snipped from the plants in her garden. I showered them with grated Parmesan cheese that my mom purchased in bulk from Costco. I simmered black bean sauce with ground pork and tofu, and spooned it over rice made in the ancient rice pot that she’s had since I was a kid. I dug a bag of frozen shrimp out of the banana-filled freezer and seared them to make a salad with arugula, white beans and toasted pine nuts, because my mom said it was one of her favorite dinners.

“This is nothing like how I make it,” she told me with her mouth full. “It’s way better.”

About a month into our shelter-in-place, I found myself overwhelmed with homesickness. I missed the muscle memory of reaching for my favorite spoon or spatula, and the comforting familiarity of my own pantry, that comes only from having purchased and put away every item inside. As I cooked a pot of caramelized onions, I pulled open one of my mom’s drawers. I steeled myself against the chaos of a system not my own, ready to root around for a random spatula. Instead, pulled out an exact replica of my favorite wooden spoon.

In the years that had elapsed since the trip, I had forgotten that my mom and I bought two almost identical wooden spoons in a crowded food market in Istanbul. We’d both admired the smooth, fine grain of the wood and the flat line formed by the bottom of the spoon, perfect for scraping the bottom of a pot.

As I stood, stirring onions with that simple, perfect spoon, my quarantine cooking took on a different view. Though different on the surface, my own kitchen and my mom’s have far more in common. I, too, stock my freezer with back-up ingredients. My regular diet is a steady stream of kale, arugula, and Parmesan cheese, all ingredients that my mom also sees as fundamental to a well-stocked kitchen. Like the self-satisfied twenty-something that I am, I hadn’t noticed that my own cooking techniques are a direct result of the food my mom cooked for me growing up.

Dishes like that kale pasta and arugula salad are proof of her influence—we both love food with lots of vegetables and strong flavors. We ate lots of kale and roasted vegetables when I was a kid, and those are the foods I continue to prefer now. A friend recently made a comment about how many condiments I keep in my fridge, and the same is true for my mom. Though I have discovered some new ones that I’ve enjoyed sharing with her, she deserves all the credit for helping me learn the importance of having these quick flavor builders on hand.

In a moment where I feel disconnected from so many things—the city where I live, my home, and my friends, just to name a few—it has been a tremendous gift to reconnect with the food of my childhood. I’ve also finally realized why I struggle to cook rice. Perhaps I’ll buy a rice cooker to match my mom’s.

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