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cook like no one's watching

by zoe cousineau

· personal essay,Zoe Cousineau,cooking

She leaned over to me in the supermarket line and whispered “this is how pandemic movies start”. It was funny at the time, we assumed it was unjustified panic consumption and hoarding.

I spent years doing almost daily market runs to keep a restaurant freshly stocked, but I’ve never been able to keep my own kitchen stocked with food for more than one meal. As of today, Quebec has issued orders for a near total lockdown in the face of COVID-19. Suddenly my relationship to food has shifted to one I remember from childhood staying with my father in a farming village of about eighty people. It is slower, but more exciting. Each outing to get, or delivery of, food eagerly awaited and planned. Each meal being more than functional, a way to pass the time and a project that can be completed.

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I need to cook long, involved, entirely impractical food so that I have some sense of rhythm and timing when all other gauges have disappeared into hours and days spent in my apartment.

The practicality and efficiency of running a restaurant kitchen - the detachment formed from years of ordering, costing, prepping, storing, serving - has been replaced by needing to cook to stay sane. I need to cook long, involved, entirely impractical food so I can feel as though I’ve accomplished something, so that points in the day are marked, so that I have some sense of rhythm and timing when all other gauges have disappeared into hours and days spent in my apartment.

I don’t think I’m alone. My social media feeds are always heavy on food content, but in the past few days so many people’s usual photos and life updates have been replaced with the sandwiches they had for lunch, the bread they made or the cake they baked. AA Bronson, a Canadian artist best known for his work as one third of General Idea, is posting daily images of soup he’s made. Massimo Bottura is giving cooking lessons from his kitchen on Instagram. Friends are sharing their simple, or complex, meals cobbled together from whatever is in their kitchens. Cooks who suddenly find themselves out of work, are, like me, discovering cooking in their home kitchens for the first time in a long while. I have a daily cocktail competition going with a former employee. We trade photos and let the general manager of our former work place be the judge. My mother, a woman who would buy our lunches for school at a local café, and who my brother describes as being “triggered” every time she tries to cook dinner, is suddenly sending me regular photos of what she’s assembled in the crockpot.

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I loath preciousness around food. I find the narrative of love and care infused dishes, so often evoked in descriptions of female chefs, invalidating the very real work and skill that cooking – at home or at a professional level – involves. When you’re sending plate after plate out of a kitchen, working in cramped, hot, stressful conditions, you’re not infusing each element of each plate with tender care. Restaurant kitchens require pragmatism. You must see product, waste, reproducibility, efficiency, speed. My brain and body are trained to break down even the simplest food into a stock list, a prep list, a series of perfectly timed tasks, a plate and a clear down. For years it pained me to talk about food with people who didn’t work in kitchens. It made me feel a bit heartless to be utterly incapable of relating to someone’s dinner party, their bread making hobby or their obsessive dive into the latest food trend. And yet, here I find myself staying connected to people from a distance through food. I’m maintaining myself through more regular meals than I’ve almost ever had. I am leaving dough to slowly rise without knowing exactly what I’m going to do with it and sending my family photos of the end result. I’m looking forward to going out into the near-abandoned streets to acquire a few items and see what I can do with them. Each ingredient precious, but not particularly considered.

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The realm of food that exists in the home is something I worked hard to distance myself from, an attempt to escape how gendered a space it is. Women in their kitchens are often romanticized as the muse, but for food to be elevated beyond comfort and nostalgia, it so often requires the authority of a male chef’s touch. As this ‘pandemic movie’ becomes ever more real, I’m relying on the occupation of this space to maintain myself. This has, in turn, led to a shift in how I understand this space and this relationship one can have to preparing food, as well as the ways in which it has been used as a conduit for interpersonal connection. In this moment, where all the pieces of everything seem to be flying apart and we face an entirely new reality when they fall back into place, I suddenly find comfort, stability and purpose in leaving dough to rise, cooking with whatever I find, letting the food dictate my pace. I find as much connection from my apartment kitchen as I ever did in a band of kitchen pirates.