Letter from the Editor

Cooking to Save a Life: A March Letter from the Editor

published Mar 3, 2020
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This is a strange moment to be writing to you about what cooking will look like in March. The truth is, I don’t know. The coronavirus may not have reached your neck of the woods, but the fear almost certainly has. Most of the world is freaking out about the virus and its rapid spread. Americans are reacting to uncertainty in the way we Americans do, which is to shop. (The Costco lines are bonkers, and Purell wipes are like 80 bucks on Amazon.) It is a very good time to be in the antibacterial business.

I don’t mean to be flip about a sickness that has caused people to suffer and die. Even if, as we all hope, we look back soon at the current fear with relief that it wasn’t so bad after all, and that the shadow of the virus passed by our neighborhood with little effect, there will still be all the people who do suffer, in addition to the thousands who have died. Those people will almost certainly be the most vulnerable, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Which is why, as I think of the month ahead, I am thinking about cooking that saves lives.

I’m not being dramatic. Cooking saves in ways large and small. If the coronavirus here in the United States turns out to be little more than an intensive flu season, we can save each other with food that nourishes, and the very act of bringing food is also one that saves by rejecting the fear of one another. I read this firsthand piece by a coronavirus patient in Italy, and she talked about how community ostracism was actually the hardest part of her quarantine:

“The thing that hurt me most about this whole ordeal was the people from my city, who treated me as if I had the plague. I live in Truccazzano, a town of 5,800 inhabitants, 15 kilometers east of Milan. They accused me of going to the doctor and risking infecting everyone, but who could have imagined such a thing three weeks ago? They made up a lot of lies, even that men in hazmat suits came to my house to sanitize it. It’s crazy. I needed their support—instead I was humiliated.”

What is a pot of soup, left at the door, in such a situation, but an act of giving life? Coronavirus aside, who else is suffering or in need among us, who might be saved, just for a moment, by a small gift of food? (One in 9 Americans experienced food insecurity at some point in the past year.) This goes past cooking, to simply bringing food; one Twitter thread I saw suggested doing errands and getting groceries so those who are at highest risk can stay safely home.

If the outbreak does indeed demand quarantine and restrict interaction with others, the choice to stay home, cook what you have, and lay low for two weeks is also an act that can save lives. Among all of the breathless news and lack of hard information, one of the best public health pieces I’ve read was by Zeynep Tufekci at Scientific American, arguing that to prepare for quarantine is not alarmist or reactively paranoid, but virtuous in placing the social over the personal and taking an active role in protecting others.

“We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.”

That piece is an excellent read that lucidly traces out the very real control a society has to balance the burden of risk and diminish it. I recommend it as an antidote to alarmism, superstition, and over-politicization.

I’ve been struck by this and other good writing about the virus as encouragement to remember that my individualism is an illusion; I live in a tightly interlocked society, even if I think I float in a personal bubble of privilege and independence. We depend on each other for food, support, connection… and Amazon deliveries (!) whether facing a pandemic or just the throes of cold and flu season.

And in the lightest way I say this: a little quarantine cooking is good practice for me and you, whether it comes to that or not. How’s your pantry? How’s your freezer? Could you eat modestly without shopping for a couple of weeks? We’re so fortunate if we can. If you have food to spare all it takes is a little ingenuity and perhaps a few extra pantry staples. (And recipes of course;

how about 75 of them

I’m not asking if you have chickpeas to last until 2023. (I have two cans. I checked.) But it’s the highest and finest art in cooking to eat down your pantry and your freezer, to make small, stone soup magics with your canned goods and scraps. And OK sure: stock up on ice cream too. But remember: shopping doesn’t save lives. Home cooking sometimes may.

Singing Happy Birthday while washing my hands,


A long postscript: We have a lot happening this month at Kitchn and here are a few highlights of what’s to come.

  • Forever Kitchens: We visit the kitchens of people who believe they are in their “forever” homes, from a cook living in her space for 60 years, to a newly renovated dream kitchen. What makes these kitchens worth living with forever?
  • Kitchen Essentials Tools Edition: Our list of the tools we believe will help you love cooking more in 2020 will be released on March 13. Consider this our cheat sheet to stocking and polishing your arsenal of kitchen gear.
  • Chicken Championships 2020: Last year we ran four March Madness chicken showdowns (my chicken Marbella opinion: controversial!) and this year we return to the tournament du poulet with four brand-new chicken showdowns to answer: what is the greatest chicken recipe of all?

And one more little treat: About half of you should be seeing that the “Jump to Recipe” shortcut link at the top of recipes is BACK! It’s a simple, old-school way to get you from the top of a post down to the recipe even faster. (If you don’t see it yet, click here to toggle that feature on.)