All I Can Do
My car was packed with food. I’d spent the last two days cooking for people I love and had an Outback® full of soups and casseroles, ready for drop-off. I felt brave and prepared, like Florence Nightingale on the battlefield, taking much-needed comfort food out to family and friends struggling in the coronavirus pandemic.
The truth my pandemic-addled world was completely out of my control, and I couldn’t have felt any less brave. I was tired, and desperate for a normalcy I knew was long gone. But what could I do about that? This was all I could do.
Our family was coming off a double-whammy of fear. As if the pandemic weren’t enough, two weeks prior, Dad was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. Twenty-four hours after that, Mom received a call from the hospital. His heart had stopped. She had better come.
By the time we arrived, I had received a text from my sister. She had called the hospital and spoken with a nurse. Dad was awake and alert.
On the day of the food-drop, it had been nearly three weeks since that terrifying call. Dad had a pacemaker put in and responded well. But there was trouble at home.
Mom was sick of cooking for the two of them.
It’s hard to blame her. She’s spent many decades of her 70 years cooking for others. She’s a good cook, but not an adventurous one. She has a repertoire, and it had grown old. Being made of steel like she is, she would never ask for help, but Dad, knowing that I’ll never turn down a chance to cook, took the plunge. “If we bought ingredients, would you cook something new for us?” he asked, audibly nervous, expecting me to be irritated or annoyed by this intrusion in to my time.
Of course I agreed, because cooking is all I can do. So much needs to be done at my parents’ house that I cannot do for them. Things need fixing, painting, replacing. They’re too proud to ask for help to do any of it. But I can certainly cook. I told Dad I would be glad to make them some things, and I could easily afford to purchase my own ingredients.
What do you make that’s new and exciting for meat and potatoes people on low-sodium diets? I brainstormed. I scanned my pantry. I knew I needed other bold flavors to compensate for the lack of salt. Soups and stews, easy to prepare and well-suited for freezing, seemed ideal.
A balsamic-glazed beef and red cabbage stew came to mind, sure to please their Polish taste buds while introducing them to the tart, deep sweetness only a thick, high-quality balsamic can bring to braising. Also a pork and cider stew, full of tender pork, apples, vegetables, and slightly tangy with a hint of Dijon mustard and cider vinegar; combining meat and fruit would be utterly new for them. Finally, an Italian wedding soup with hearty meatballs of lean ground beef, garlic, and spices. I could make all of this without adding a grain of unnecessary salt.
By day, I’m a marketing strategist. Strategy is my strength. That applies to boardrooms and my kitchen. There is strategy required to make a lot of food efficiently. Before the pandemic, I hosted dinner parties regularly. The part I most enjoyed was the day-of pre-planning: when to start prepping, what could be made in advance, what would need to be at the ready to serve as a finishing touch, timing everything so guests could sit down to a perfect meal at the right time. I thrived on that, and I’ve missed it terribly this year. I relished the opportunity to mentally organize and prepare to cook en masse.
When it came time to start, I prepped all of my ingredients the night before, and then set an army of crockpots to work making these rich, comforting meals. The house smelled intoxicatingly delicious, and by the end of the day, I had three hearty, healthy meals to pack up for Mom and Dad.
While I was divvying up the food into portions and planning what time I would leave for my parents’ house, my husband, the only one of us with the patience for breadmaking, decided to bake a homemade loaf to send to them as well. This unexpected addition totally threw off my timeline, but they are crazy about his bread. I settled in to wait.
Then I received a text. I learned that dear friends of mine had tested positive for coronavirus, giving them the dubious honor of being the first people I knew personally to contract the virus during the pandemic. It had finally happened: the virus was here and present in a way it simply hadn’t been yet.
Blood pounded my ears. I was stunned and didn’t know to reply to her text. I came back into focus chanting the mantra that has gotten me through this unimaginable year so far: I can’t do anything about this. I’ve had to say it about so many things this year. This was just one more.
I couldn’t do anything about their contracting the virus. But I could bring them food. That was all I could do.
Mom and Dad’s delivery went into the fridge, and out came ground beef, lasagna noodles, and ricotta. There is no greater expression of love than a lasagna. It was the perfect thing to make for my friends.
Lasagna is a meditation. The layering of sauce, pasta, cheese, meat, cheese, sauce, pasta, repeat takes time and focus. It is methodical, and easy to quiet the mind and pay attention to the task at hand. It is the perfect thing to make for friends, and the perfect thing to do when you’re scared and worried.
Once assembled, I hoisted the weighty pan into the oven. While the lasagna began to bake, I decided to make a quick chicken and orzo soup, a simple, nourishing bowl of which will fight off whatever ails you. While it simmered and the lasagna moved on to browning, I folded oats, eggs, milk, maple syrup, and berries together to create an oatmeal bake. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few days would be taken care of while my friends recovered. I couldn’t heal them, but I could help them fight the battle for good health with food.
Alone in my kitchen, surrounded by the warmth of the oven and the rich smells of so many delicious things cooking, I repeated to myself, “This is all I can do.” Outside, the pandemic raged. Racial tensions continued to flare. Politics were a bitter war. Huge swaths of the world were burning amidst global warming. I couldn’t do anything about any of this. But in the kitchen, I was in control. I called the shots. I had the power to take care of my own, at a time when I didn’t have the power to take care of so much.
Later that afternoon, my husband and I packed up my car. We lugged coolers with ice to keep the now-cold food for my parents at a safe temperature; the soups, carefully ladled into plastic containers, were also bagged for good measure to protect against spills; the lasagna, weighing about 30 pounds, wrapped in a cocoon of foil, nestled carefully in a sturdy box for transport. The bread came out beautifully and, still warm, was loosely wrapped in parchment paper and steamed up my back window. I was ready to take this good food to those I love. Florence Nightingale put on her brave face and hit the road.
At Mom and Dad’s, I entered unannounced, my facemask covering my smile as I hauled in bags and coolers. They were delighted. They were expecting perhaps one soup, not this feast. The fruit and meat in the pork and cider stew were very exotic to them. “How different!” Dad exclaimed. Mom tasted the balsamic-braised cabbage, still cold. “Oh my,” she said, “That’s good!” They immediately sliced the bread and buttered samples. I stood on the other side of the kitchen, grinning behind my mask. They were so excited to try the new flavors I had brought to them. Mom was ready to stock the chest freezer. They were set for a while.
From there, I traveled to the home of my COVID-stricken friends. I had told them I was coming, and we agreed on a front-stoop drop-off to minimize contact. I carefully stacked soups and casseroles on top of the lasagna, lifted from the knees, and carried the box to their front door.
I scurried back to my car and breathed a moment, inhaling the lingering smells of the food I just gave away. The yeasty aroma of the bread, the sweet-sour smell of red cabbage, the spicy oregano and sweet basil in the lasagna melded and made me hungry and happy. As I drove home, I received a text from my friend: “Soup’s warming up now and we can’t wait for lasagna tonight!” I was satisfied. Everyone had been taken care of.
2020 has been a year out of control. For most things, I have had to say, “I cannot do anything about this.” I can’t stop a pandemic, cure racism, control an election, or halt global warming. These overwhelming things are largely out of my hands. I have had to say “I cannot do anything about this” over and over again, in an attempt to remain rational in a time of lunacy, when most of us have felt utterly helpless while the world spins completely out of bounds.
Yet time and again, the thing I come back to, the one thing I can do, is cook for those I love, and find meaning in the kitchen. Cooking is equal parts control and expecting to release control. The cooking process begins with planning – making menus, selecting ingredients, preparing your mise en place - but planning goes out the window when we have to creatively counterbalance overseasoning, slow down the cooking of this thing to coincide with when that thing will be done, decide what’s missing from the dish right before serving and should we add it if the recipe didn’t call for it? This is cooking. The cook plans as much as they can but has to be ready to respond when plans change. Isn’t that what we’ve all done this year? Plans have been regularly thrown aside in the face of uncertainty. Control has been ripped away by unpredictable events. We plan the best we can, but after this ridiculous, breakneck, devastating year, we’re all more prepared than ever to face the unexpected. Like cooks, we’ve all learned to make plans but keep going when plans go off the rails.
And so, throughout this unimaginable year, I keep coming back to the kitchen. I slice, sauté, braise, and bake to remind myself of what I can control. I stir, season, and season again to remember that many things don’t go as planned. I hope for the expected but regularly face the unexpected, and in the end, all I really want to do is share the outcome with the people I love, and love them by taking care of them the only way I know how. Really, that’s all I can do.