Deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, as the angel of death hovers, I hole up in my kitchen cooking weird stuff: cashew cheese, fettucine sauced with pureed tofu, butternut squash ersatz hummus, and Beyond Beef cabbage rolls.
In my pre-pandemic life, my cooking didn’t look like this. Back then, in an era that seems as remote as the Bronze Age, I was too busy to cook anything that required more than three ingredients and as many steps. Now that I’m no longer running around, however, I have the leisure time for lengthy culinary explorations. The online cooking gurus Alvin Zhou, Kevin Curry, Nadiya, and Babish are my new “friends.” My lifelong calorie-counting still informs my choices; most of what I cook is healthy and relatively nonfattening with one notable exception—a butter sugar and chocolate filled 14-ingredient, 21-step extravaganza: Alvin Zhou’s 100-hour fudgy brownie.
I enjoy it—complicated cooking is immersive. It occupies the empty space in my mind, leaving no room for worry. It’s also fun—there’s a deep creative satisfaction in combining raw ingredients into something good to eat. And it’s also in my genes. My late mother, a Holocaust survivor, cooked this way—not from the internet, but at a leisurely pace, for the pure fun of potchkeying, the Yiddish word for fooling around. With nothing but memory to guide her, my mother summoned up the flavors of her European childhood, sublime delicacies like palatcinta, paper-thin Hungarian sweet crepes, chocolate-covered nut tortes, and apple-dotted noodle kugel. But a lot of what she cooked was yucky and weird, stuff like jellied carp, mamaliga with smelly brinza cheese, borscht, and other dishes I try to forget.
As a kid I couldn’t wrap my brain around her weird stuff. Why couldn’t she make Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks? They looked so good on TV—she never bought them. Now I am drawn to my own sorts of weird foods—fried tofu, pureed tofu, tofu with pasta, and an all-in-one-bowl spelt noodles and veggies dish that turns out to be a tasteless mush. I was once a finicky eater, refusing my mother’s oddities; now, my quarantine mates, my husband and 21-year-old son, are more tolerant and perhaps hungrier—they finish off anything I cook with minimal complaints.
Still, I wonder: Why don’t I stick with the tried and true?
Why do I do this at all, spending hours each night on cooking? In the old days I’d boil up a pot of noodles and everyone was happy. Has the pandemic caused me to lose my mind?
Then one evening at the grocery, I met Pam. We’re neighbors but months had passed since we’d seen each other face-to-face. Even with her mask on, Pam’s pale green eyes were dull. Then the words slipped. “This is hard,” she said, “and I think I’m getting depressed.”
“Wow. I’m sorry,” I said, and I really was.
As I walked home, I thought about Pam’s depression, which seems as contagious as COVID. Sadness is in the air. How can it not be?
But somehow miraculously my spirits remain buoyant. Why am I not sinking, too?
Then it occurred to me: All those crazy cooking experiments have kept me going.
It’s the way we are wired, Not just me, but all humans. New experiences stimulate the feel-good hormone dopamine and each cooking experiment is in its way a new experience. I’m not traveling to distant locations but like millions of other quarantine cooks I’m having adventures right at home. The surprise factor not knowing how these recipes will come out heightens the thrill—it’s like going to the racetrack. Either you win big or you lose.
I think of my mother. Until the pandemic, I wrote off her cooking experiments as an act of nostalgia. After losing her family and almost all physical relics of her prewar life, cooking seemed the safest way, perhaps the only way, to journey backward in time.
Now I realize that potchkeying was my mother’s Prozac. Like most survivors, my mother had a massive case of untreated PTSD, which she probably passed on to me and my kids.
Like most survivors, my mother avoided therapy. Back then it was called analysis and was only for intellectuals, movie stars, and bona fide kooks.
The only mental health professional my mother ever saw was the German psychiatrist who approved her request for reparations. She coped by keeping herself very busy and locking her trauma inside her heart never speaking of it at all. I believe that totality of her silence indicated the depth of her pain.
I can still remember her in Fairway, the iconic Upper West Side greengrocer, stumbling on the raw materials for what was perhaps the weirdest of her recipes: gooseberry soup. She didn’t make it often. Gooseberries were a rarity even at the epicenter of New York foodie culture. To me, they looked like anemic Brussels sprouts, but to my mother, they were edible jewels to create a complex, sweet-tart dessert soup requiring multiple steps and a Zen-like care, especially the final step, folding of a bowl full of whipped eggs into the warm softened gooseberries. Like me, my mother had been a health-conscious cook, especially after she and my father were diagnosed with high cholesterol, but now she put aside her usual caution aside. Sometimes one could cheat a little.
One Friday night she served it as our first course. I wouldn’t touch it. “You don’t know what you are missing,” my father urged but I shook my head. The thick yellow emulsion looked like mucous but to my parents it was edible nirvana.
During this pandemic, I have found my own type of edible nirvana.
Following a long week of choreography moving the batter from bowl over to freezer to fridge, my 100-hour brownies are ready to eat. With their butter, eggs, and sugar they are bad for my cholesterol yet I throw caution to the wind, slicing a small dark square, reciting the blessing, and then filling my mouth with a sublime chocolate coffee tension.
Delicious. I set it on the table for dessert. In minutes, 100 hours of effort will vanish, and even as the angel of death still hovers life will feel like a party for a little while.
Carol Ungar’s writing has appeared in NextAvenue, Forbes, NPR, the Jerusalem Post Magazine, and Fox News. She also leads memoir writing workshops on Zoom.