A Year of Pandemic Living Gave Me “Cooking Block.” Here’s How I’m Finding Inspiration.
At this time last year, I was living with my wife and two young sons in San Francisco. I worked part-time as the lunch cook at my boys’ school, wrote a cooking column for The San Francisco (which I still write), and freelanced as a cookbook co-author and recipe developer and tester. We ate out often. We spent an exorbitant amount of money on groceries. My whole world, both personally and professionally, revolved around food, and around inspiring people to try new recipes and to spend more time in the kitchen making good food.
I love to cook — or, maybe I should say that I loved to cook, back then. Because, even though I didn’t think it would happen to me, sometime in the last year, after months spent preparing nearly every single thing my family ate, I started to hate cooking (a bit of a problem for someone who makes a living doing it!). And when I hit bottom, it was other cooks who brought me back to myself.
In the first months of the pandemic, I watched as my friends, ones who worked outside the food industry, found their way to home cooking. One of the best journalists I know, who spearheaded a COVID-tracking project when the government failed us, took to making Oaxacan mole to relax. My Instagram feed was suddenly filled with images of bubbling fruit pies with homemade crusts and, of course, loaves of sourdough. I was heartened to see that people who were once too busy or disinterested in home cooking were jamming up Rancho Gordo’s website, trying to get a hold of heirloom beans, and were buying cookbooks like never before.
As someone who has long championed home cooking, both in my newspaper column and in my cookbook, Repertoire, I marveled at the ways in which a terrible world event might finally get people to begin to listen to my party line about how cooking for your people was one of the very best things to do.
In the beginning, I was right there with them. I got a perverse thrill out of stocking up and cooking out of my pantry. I remember smugly telling my wife that I was “made for this” — this being cooking all the things my family of four ate every day. In those early months, with all those hours at home and no place to go, I found it comforting to roll homemade crackers to accompany soup, to make batches of chocolate pudding; they were bright spots in a bleak and scary time.
Spring turned to summer. We moved across the country, to Maine, and I unpacked the boxes of kitchen equipment first and kept cooking. Summer turned to fall. And as the leaves shriveled and dropped on our lawn, I realized one day, while frying chicken cutlets for my young sons, that I was really, really, tired of cooking. I was tired of planning the meals, fed up with the shopping, angry while preparing food, and bitter about cleaning up after.
Not only was I tired of doing it, but for the first time in my life I also really couldn’t think of what to cook. I struggled to find inspiration, both for what to cook for my own family and what to write for my cooking column — the one, you know, intended to inspire others. I felt sharp resentment when I made my kids breakfast and a few hours later, lunch, and a few hours later — really, you need dinner too? My wife is perfectly adept at cooking and completely willing to help, but her demanding full-time job (and my lack of one) made it mostly my job. And, remember, I had once loved it.
Around that time, my wife and I watched Pretend It’s a City, the documentary about Fran Lebovitz. In the film, she describes a decades-long writer’s block, and it hit me: I had cooking block.
What a strange feeling it is, to find that what once brought you peace and joy now feels like a terrible chore. But without any enthusiasm for cooking, I didn’t feel like myself. Giving up — which for me meant ordering takeout and serving scrambled eggs for dinner — provided only temporary relief. When I didn’t feel like cooking, I felt like a stranger to myself. I had to find my way back to the kitchen.
So, in January, I pulled a mountain of cookbooks off my shelf. I daydreamed about Vivian Howard’s summer vegetable scallion pancakes. I stared longingly at a photo of David Tanis’ black beans with chorizo and squid, as though it were an image of something illicit. I watched YouTube videos of cooks making hand-pulled noodles, and I ordered jars of harissa from a place my friend Samin Nosrat recommended. I proposed an ingredient exchange with my fellow cookbook author, Marjory Sweet, who loaded me up with New Mexican specialties. I cracked the spine of Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, and wondered which store in Southern Maine stocked fresh curry leaves. And then I went to that store, on a grey day, nearly a year since the pandemic began, when I really didn’t feel like it, and filled my cart with ingredients.
I needed a shot in the arm while I waited for the real shot in the arm — a boost of energy and inspiration to lift me from boredom, from the cooking doldrums. So I let other cooks call the shots for a while. In those books and videos and ingredients I sought, and found, fresh perspective. They filled me with new ideas. They told me what to make. I cooked other cook’s recipes, immersed myself in their kitchens and worlds, instead of relying on the recipes I could make with my eyes closed. I traveled through those cookbooks and videos to Britain and Shandong and California and North Carolina. And when I returned to my own New England kitchen, I was very hungry — and I actually wanted to cook.