Right now, human contact, the very thing that keeps us going, that keeps me going, is a no-no. If I still lived in southern California, my experience of this quarantine would probably be very different from the one I am having now. Certainly more human contact. I’d be cooking up a storm for my daughter Keya, my partner Dean, as well as my friends.
I like looking after people and for years, my home was where people would gather for food and comfort. Right now, we would be talking—about this virus that has overrun the world and perhaps other things too, even if we had to do it sitting six feet apart.
But now, for the first time in 20 years, I am alone, except for my puppy, Ever. I moved to Boston ten months ago for my dream job at America’s Test Kitchen. Keya went off to university last fall, Dean plans to join me on the east coast when he can.
So I did what I always do: I made friends. In my building, there’s a young couple I enjoy spending time with. Mike, a local Quincy boy, is a chef; his wife Alexandra, a Montessori teacher, is from Australia. We take walks together, and occasionally get drinks or dinner. Then there’s Matt and Nicole, who live down the street and whose pup, Lucy, adores Ever.
Alexandra jokes that I already know more people in the neighborhood than she does! It’s true that before the virus isolated us all, I had quite a bit of human interaction here. I talked to people on the T as I rode to work. There I met colleagues I liked and collaborated with. Then, we started working from home and my work community was effectively whisked away. I no longer got to smile at the people I was used to seeing on a daily basis; a book designer with whom I always share a joke and a laugh; an editor with whom I walk to tastings; a colleague who jokingly calls me Moonlight because I’d told him that was the meaning of my name.
After 9-11, it was community that held us together in a time of despair and sorrow. Family and friends met for dinner or drinks or coffee, we shared our political views, we talked about how the world would never be the same again, we comforted each other. We are doing the same thing again. With one difference. We are talking to each other but getting together with convivial people over dinner is a no-no. Hugs are a no-no. Handshakes are a no-no.
Loneliness could have set in quickly. Luckily, I don’t get lonely and having been a freelance writer, then a self-employed caterer, I am used to being alone. In any case, my friends from Los Angeles and Paris and Austin and Bombay keep any loneliness at bay. They regularly check in and send me hugs. And with nearly everyone in my neighborhood working from home right now, I see more friendly faces than usual when I take Ever for her walk.
No, loneliness is not my problem. What I miss is not having anyone to cook for. Then last weekend, I got a phone call from Alexandra. Mike had brought home fresh produce from work so it wouldn’t go to waste. It was too much food for them so they were sharing it. “Would you like some?”
What a lovely gesture, I thought. “Yes, please,” I said and went to their apartment to fill a box with scallions, beets, sweet potatoes, salad greens, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, parsley, and an English cucumber. If I was in California, I could have taken more produce and cooked it for my family. Instead I said, “Should I ask my friend Matt to come take some? He has four sons, I’m sure he could use it.” If Matt was surprised to hear from me, he didn’t show it. He walked over with a big box and gathered some fruits and vegetables for his family. Spinach for smoothies, pineapple, lettuce, oranges.
When I took my produce home, I wondered what to do with it. Then I decided that even though my family wasn’t here, I was going to cook up a splendid meal for myself. That was a short-lived and uncharacteristic notion. If I was cooking, what could I do but share? Since I couldn’t cook for Matt’s big family in my sparsely appointed new kitchen, I made them some banana-chocolate chip muffins. And I asked Alexandra to come by and pack up some dinner that evening.
Now for the menu. Browsing America’s Test Kitchen's websites, I found a recipe for Beets with Lime and Pepitas but I had no pepitas. Then I found another recipe for Beets with Lemon and Almonds. Again, I had lemons but no almonds at home. So I decided on a mash-up of the two recipes: Beets with Lime, Lemon, and Walnuts.
For the rest of the meal, I wanted my kind of comfort food so I made dishes from Maharashtra, the state in India where I was born. As always, I made dessert first. I grated sweet potatoes and sautéed them in some homemade clarified butter (ghee), adding white granulated sugar for sweetness. Once the sweet potatoes were cooked through, I flavored them with ground cardamom and raisins. (You can find the recipe at the bottom of this page.)
Then I cut zucchini and summer squash into even, bite-sized pieces. In hot oil, I made a seasoning of brown mustard seed, turmeric, and asafetida. I tossed the squash into the spiced oil and stir-fried it for a few minutes till it was cooked, adding salt, a pinch of sugar, and some powdered coriander and cumin seed, a classic seasoning from my part of the world.
I made some hot white Basmati to go with the squash. Now I just needed a raita. I had some more boiled beets left so I grated them, mixing them into yogurt I salted. I stirred in white onion, green chiles, cumin, and cilantro for flavor and crunch. I made salad last so it wouldn’t wilt. I used my grandma’s romaine salad for inspiration but didn’t make her hot oil seasoning. I just chopped some romaine I had in the fridge, added halved cherry tomatoes, and a little onion. Just before my neighbor came over, I squeezed some lime juice over the greens, and tossed them with salt and powdered cumin.
A few hours after Alexandra took my food home, I got a text from her.
“We just died and went to heaven . . . Your dessert is out of this world.”
Delighted to have fed someone and made them happy, I could eat my dinner. The next day, Alexandra fed me. She brought back my Tupperware and some freshly baked Anzac biscuits, made from a recipe her mother sent from Australia.
The fact that we are social animals, that we gravitate to others and build community, has become even more evident to me in the past two weeks. Some years ago, in my memoir I wrote that when I was a child, “love was given to me tenderly on a plate.” It is comforting that I have that kind of plate to share in this new community of mine. Hugs and gatherings may be impossible right now but wherever we come from, food can always be our point of human contact.
Sautéed Sweet Potatoes in Sugar
Time: 25 minutes
2 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
½ cup granulated white sugar
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
3 cardamom pods, peeled, and powdered
1 tablespoon golden raisins (optional)
1. Grate the sweet potatoes with their skins on (you can also peel them if you prefer).
2. Heat ghee in 10-inch skillet and add the sweet potato.
3. Sauté the gratings till tender, 10-15 minutes. One should break apart easily with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula.
4. Add sugar and ground cardamom. Stir to combine and melt sugar. Mix in raisins, if using.
5. Serve hot or at room temperature. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are great accompaniments to this dessert.
(from Maharashtrian Cuisine: A Family Treasury by Kaumudi Marathé, Zaika, 1999)
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