It was a Friday morning in the middle of March when I took my first bizarre grocery trip of 2020. Even though we were yet to wear masks, the silence among us, the lack of eye contact, the absence of background music, and the lack of rice and beans and toilet paper (remember when that was the story?!) on the shelves signaled something had changed.
My husband’s birthday was coming up, and we had just celebrated my birthday with a pretty awesome family weekend trip, so I figured the least I could do was make one of our favorite meals to celebrate him: mole. And so began my elaborate cooking and baking coping mechanism. While I was already someone who enjoyed cooking and baking, the reality is that my long-ass commute and my workaholic tendencies made it so that in the last couple of years cooking was either not happening, or it was mostly a chore.
But when I didn’t know what would be happening next – for my kids, my work, my husband’s work (in health care), for our family in other parts of the United States and Mexico, for the WORLD...I dealt with my emotions by making EVERYTHING from scratch, perfecting childhood recipes I suddenly longed for, and yes, by making my own sourdough (my starter has long since died, and I’ve gone back to making this bread instead). But when I got tired of washing all the dishes in the middle of the night, and my cooking habits were closer to my pre-commuting days, I coped with the next best thing – food content! Here are some of the people and dishes that helped me escape, however briefly, the stress of the pandemic:
The Great British Baking Show
Since the 2016 presidential election, this has been one of my go-to TV comforts. Here's a show where you get to see amateur bakers make incredible looking things, help each other out when one of them is struggling, cheer another person on when that other person is winning, and where talking head interviews are set in a beautiful rural background and do not resort to any reality TV competition clichés. I wish I had saved some seasons for this year--I didn’t know I’d need them! The latest season was actually filmed in a pandemic bubble, and while my favorite contestant did not win (because even this food competition show does not reward consistent and excellent performance and will kick a contestant out when they have that ONE BAD day), I must admit that I teared up during the last episode. Every season usually ends with a picnic celebration with the contestants’ families and loved ones, but given the pandemic, they could not be there, so the people there to celebrate and be celebrated were the workers of the hotel where everyone bubbled, as well as others behind the scenes who made the show possible. Please do not bother watching any of the American version(s). I made that mistake once when I was out of episodes, and as soon as I heard someone say the words “I am here to win!” I knew I had to keep my baking show British.
Nadiya’s Time to Eat
One of my first pandemic TV indulgences was this show starring Nadiya Hussein, a former Great British Bake Off/Baking Show star, someone whose baking/cooking talent and amazing facial expressions were one of her season’s highlights. Her cooking show’s premise is making delicious meals that are stress-free. One of the things I really enjoyed about the series is that she showcases a “time-saving” ingredient in each episode by going to the farm/factory where the ingredient is produced, and after learning about the ingredient, she brings a meal to share with the people who make the ingredient possible! Make that onion and garlic ramen base from episode 1 right now. While I haven’t recreated her ramen in a jar recipe, I’ve used this onion and garlic jam to make my own ramen broth multiple times (it keeps for months in the fridge) and it is magical.
The CHEF Show
This is one of our family’s favorites. This series follows director and The Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau as he and chef Roy Choi make amazing meals together. Roy Choi worked as a consultant on Favreau’s 2014 film Chef, and this cooking series is a sort of spinoff. Their friendship is so fun to watch, most of the meals will make your mouth water, and oftentimes you will be in awe of the fact that Favreau seems to be good at everything. He is so genuinely interested in learning and honoring other people’s processes, regardless of the work that they do. Some series highlights for us have been his visit to Robert Rodriguez’s pad in Austin (another one who can apparently do everything), the visit to Skywalker Ranch (when he and Dave Filoni mention they are working together on a then top-secret project), the one when Favreau works in one of Roy Choi’s food trucks, and the episode that honors the late LA food critic Johnathan Gold. My one critique is that I wish they would feature more female chefs and cooks. Feel free to skip the Gwenyth Paltrow episode.
A sweet and funny cooking podcast born out of the pandemic that was only meant to last four episodes because Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway, like many, thought we would be stuck at home for just a few weeks. While the miniseries began with four episodes that featured questions and tips for cooking from a limited pantry, later episodes also featured special guests (like Yo-Yo Ma, Jason Mantsoukas, Nadiya Hussain, and even Hirway’s own dad, Dr. Sumesh Hirway) who shared their own pandemic cooking and baking stories. The dynamic between Nosrat and Hirway is fun and comforting; listen for Hirway who cannot help but make food puns that make Nosrat groan; for Samin’s food expertise and laughter (have you watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat yet?); but mostly listen for their stories. One of them was about Hirway’s mother, Kanta, who used to make a delicious mango pie for Thanksgiving. Kanta passed away recently, and in the podcast’s penultimate episode, Samin read a few lines from her obituary, as written by her son:
“Kanta was an excellent cook and a lover of spicy cuisine from all over the world. She expressed her love through cooking and insisted on feeding everyone who came into her house. When the Hirways began an annual tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinner in their home in Peabody, Kanta would make Indian food alongside the American staples which were less familiar to her. A highlight of her family and the friends who came to visit was her mango pie, a hybrid dessert that would one day be written about in The New York Times adapted from her recipe. It was a dish that represented her well, making a home in America but always connected to Indian culture, food, and community.”
Kanta’s story made me think again about why baking and cooking has brought me so much comfort during this time, and how it helps me connect to my past, present and future. Read Nostat’s New York Times story and check out Kanta Hirway’s mango pie recipe here.