Essay

How We Ate Through a Most-Unusual Year

Flour became the new white gold, searches surged for sourdough, frozen meals brought relief, and for many, holiday meals were made—and eaten—on zoom.

December 30, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

In the 19th century, a French philosopher named Henri Bergson proposed a new way to think about time: la durée, or the subjective perception of time, as opposed to the objective definition measured by clocks (or today, smartphones). La durée explains why 10 minutes spent chatting with a friend fly by, but while waiting for water to boil, those same 10 minutes pass painfully slow—particularly when hungry.

In a year marked by historical events—civil rights protests, nail biters of elections, and a global pandemic—there were periods that seemed to stretch like well-kneaded dough. (That is, for the homebound and so-called non-essential workers.) The purpose of this story is to try to pin down how “we” (an admittedly slippery term) cooked and how we ate, based on observations of the food media-sphere and some year-end numbers, in the hopes of finding commonalities in our experience; and to document what we brought to the table during these extraordinary times.

An ambitious start(er)

At the outset of 2020, there was barely a hint of the disruption to come. Those paid to think about it forecasted we’d be eating “towers of buttered toast piled with ice cream, sourdough doughnuts, CBD-infused everything, and even more fried chicken sandwiches”—some of which proved true. They anticipated we’d be drinking less alcohol (not true) and imbibing churros (prescient). Meanwhile, writers were contemplating the obsoletion of smoothie bowls and welcoming yet another meatless protein into the market.

By March, as stay-at-home orders spread, the mood became increasingly anxious. The phrase “in these uncertain times” never got so much traction. But like lighting candles during a power outage, there was a certain thrill about the novelty of the situation, albeit somewhat terrifying, and we determined to make good on our #quarantime.

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“Sourdough defined my year. I named mine "Rona" (it seemed more appropriate). With Rona, I ventured beyond bread and made brownies and chocolate cake with my starter. All delicious :)”
— HalfPint
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People rushed the supermarkets and purchased pantry staples with aplomb. Demand for baking supplies jumped 6000 percent. Flour became the new white gold, with online retailers quickly selling out. Google searches soared for pizza dough, banana bread, carrot cake, naan, and—you guessed it—sourdough bread.

A sourdough bread tutorial from Andrew Rea, better known as Babish, nearly broke the Internet, as he formed a couple of dark-crusted loaves alongside culinary wunderkind Joshua Weissman. “Sourdough bread is a great way to slow life down a little bit,” said Weissman, summing up the cultural moment. It garnered a cult-like following: Adherents shared snaps of fresh-baked loaves on social media with a pride similar to new parents.

A subreddit called SourdoughStarter is especially entertaining. Members (1.4k of them) post photos of mason jars filled with bubbling goop, christening them with very cheeky or very human names: Bran Solo, Bready Krueger, Levain Baby, Bertha, Maeve. Most of them appear to be female.

“She is such a happy girl today! The warmer weather is helping a ton!” posted one user. “This snobby girl likes Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat,” posted another. And next to a jar that looked like runny oatmeal, “Shirley, day 10. She’s trying so hard.”

Curiously enough, delivery orders for sourdough bread also spiked (up 192 percent in May, according to GrubHub’s Year in Food report). So, were all those loaves on Instagram actually fresh-baked? There is no proofing on Instagram.

Hungry for comfort

Without the usual signposts—summer vacations, holidays, etc.—time lost its teeth. La durée stretched and folded. As it became clear that nothing was clear, our ambitions were scaled back by early signs of kitchen fatigue. Recipe writers encouraged us to lean into microwaving, and to exploit the easy wins to be found within cans and jars.

“There was a surge in baking and cooking from scratch at the onset of quarantine,” Rachel Bukowski, Team Leader of Product Development at Whole Foods Market, tells me. “But more recently, we’ve seen consumers gravitating towards ‘easier’ meal and snacking solutions.”

Just as workleisure, aka sweatpants, became the new uniform, plates were piled with comfort foods, made with our hands and those of others. Per Grub Hub, we feasted on chicken—spicy chicken sandwiches, chicken burrito bowls, and wings; we ordered waffle fries and steak quesadillas, and apparently, washed them down with cold brew coffee and ice lattes. For Aldi shoppers, the grocery cart item of choice was Mama Cozzi’s Take & Bake Deli Pizza, voted their favorite item of the year.

As we binged The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, and I May Destroy You, food became escapist—a fleeting hit of joy from Mama Cozzi to break up otherwise indiscernible days. “What’s for dinner?” became the regular text between my sister and I, in Dallas and Paris, respectively. It wasn’t especially helpful to tell her how much I admired her for homeschooling her four daughters. So I asked her how she liked to cook pork chops instead.

In previous pandemics, food was prescribed as a remedy for maladies.

“Keep good company, drink good wine, and eat good meat,” — (Anonymous) Against the Plague (poem), France, 1420.

In the era of COVID-19, at least one of those sources of relief was unavailable—to break bread; to dine ensemble, to share a home-cooked meal (with anyone outside of our pod). As time lurched forward, no amount of sourdough loaves could fill that void.

Burnout in the kitchen

Months of stay-at-home orders weighed on our optimism, and a period of culinary malaise settled into kitchens everywhere. Even the most dedicated professional home cooks appended their articles and recipes with admissions of burnout.

During my own low moments, I found myself savoring the words of cooks and writers who reminded me of the joy to be found in unexpected places. Ruby Tandoh’s “Good Food Things”: “[A]ll I can think about is the softness of fondant icing when you press in a birthday candle. Refreshing the application form for Universal Credit, I daydream about biting the heads off jelly babies. I scroll through terrible news while thinking about the snap of fridge-cold chocolate.” George Reynolds’ concept of “gross" recipes or personal cooking: “I wholeheartedly urge you: get horny in the kitchen, too. Work out what really turns you on, and cook it for yourself—not out of bullshit prayer-hand self-care Insta-nonsense, but because it will feel good, and sometimes that’s enough.”

Because you don’t have to ignore all of the bad things in order to appreciate good food.

Like in Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, when she writes of the war years in Europe:

“There were Zeppelin alarms from time to time, but like everything else we had gotten used to them. When they came at dinner time we went on eating and when they came at night Gertrude Stein did not wake me...”

This year, I suppose we learned to eat through it all. We ate siloed inside our homes. We ate to soothe ourselves.

Looking forward, will we ever absent-mindedly pass around a restaurant bread basket or a bucket of warm, buttery movie theatre popcorn? Will we ever offer a friend an outstretched hand holding a drippy ice cream cone? Will we ever sidle up to a bar and scooch our way between two strangers, elbows flirting while tucking into a shiny bowl of pasta, one eye glued to an open kitchen alive with commotion, filled with great food and gratitude for a front-row seat?

Maybe not soon. But hopefully someday we will.

A second wind

As Thanksgiving neared, Google recipe searches surged once again. It looked as though we were experiencing a collective second wind.

My family, like so many others, couldn’t be together, so my siblings, my mom, and I made a WhatsApp date. Armed with my mom’s cryptic instructions (“mash boil potatoes no too mushy, salt to taste, milk butter makes it good”), I cooked an entire, pared-down Thanksgiving meal: roasted Brussel sprouts, candied yams, a turkey so small it could have passed for a chicken, and, of course, mashed potatoes (recipe above if you’re interested).

And I made gravy the way my late father used to: slowly stirring milk and flour into the drippings, and smashing the lumps with the back of a wooden spoon. The stakes were low—we were my husband, my toddler and I—but I wanted to get it just right.

As I was setting hot dishes on the table, I realized I missed the call with my family. In the midst of cooking, I had lost track of time. The gravy may have been velvety smooth but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

So I texted them I’m sorry and later we exchanged photos from our distant tables.

2020—a year in which the days passed so slowly and suddenly, is almost over.

What food(s) defined this year for you? Tell us in the comments below.

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Caitlin is a Mallorca-based writer. She wrote about food and wine while living in Madrid after college, and had a brief career as a lawyer before moving back to Spain to work in restaurants and attend culinary courses at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. She has worked or staged at Mina, Nerua and Septime. Caitlin is currently working on her first memoir about working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Bilbao.

12 Comments

Jessica S. December 31, 2020
Loved this piece so much. Made me think back on all the ways the kitchen continued to be a safe haven for our family this year. Happy new year!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. January 1, 2021
<3 happy new year!
 
HalfPint December 31, 2020
Sourdough defined my year. I named mine "Rona" (it seemed more appropriate). With Rona, I ventured beyond bread and made brownies and chocolate cake with my starter. All delicious :)
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. January 1, 2021
Happy 2021 to you + Rona! :)
 
luvcookbooks December 31, 2020
At the beginning of the pandemic, I relied on the kindness of strangers. My adult daughter was in between jobs and took over cooking. At work, we took turns buying lunch, since so many places were closed. Even the Starbucks in our building. We ordered individually packaged take out and lined up six feet apart to collect it, then retreated to our erstwhile patient rooms to remove our masks and eat. My daughter baked for our heroic team on the inpatient unit. Someone came down to collect the food so I didn’t have exposure to Covid. One day I brought triple chocolate espresso cookies and the resident who met me told me that three people had died on their service that day.
At first I only ventured to local groceries. Then one of the locals pivoted (sorry!-overused word) to delivery and bags of groceries appeared outside our door.
Over the summer, our farmer’s market re opened with timed entry and distanced shopping. I was so happy to see the fresh food and the people who courageously exposed themselves to the public. It was the first bright spot in the pandemic.
My daughter got tired of cooking and dishes and we entered the takeout phase. Delicious Mexican, Greek, ok Chinese. The wonderful kosher bakery/cafe re opened after five months.
NYC restaurants that ordinarily don’t do takeout delivered all the way to my apartment in the Bronx. And a subscription service opened, like a CSA but for restaurants. I bought the Summerlong Supper Club, paying in advance for 16 meals from restaurants like M. Wells that I had not yet visited. I catered a socially distant supper for the Wednesday night residents from Offbeat Eats, a new food business that does socially distanced catering.
On vacation but unable to travel, I entered the cooking phase everyone else had already passed through in the spring. I pickled cucumelons, preserved kumquats(like lemons, but kumquats), candied citron and made ponche from hawthorn fruit.
Food wise, it hasn’t been a bad year. Hoping other things too numerous to list, including the pandemic, get better in 2021. But I think 2020 is not done with us.:((
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. December 31, 2020
People really dug deep to find solutions this year. Thanks for sharing! And bravo to you and your daughter
 
Smaug December 30, 2020
I had hoped at one point that all this would help Americans rediscover self reliance, but it really doesn't seem to have worked out that way.
 
AntoniaJames December 30, 2020
And there were many of us who this holiday season donated to food banks, more than we ever had before, instead of (or in addition to) sending gifts to people who already have so much. ;o)
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. December 30, 2020
An excellent point!
 
luvcookbooks December 31, 2020
AJ, our farmers market had a donation table so that we could purchase farmer’s market food that went directly to the Friendly Fridge in our neighborhood. I was familiar with pantries that supplied packaged food and was thrilled to be able to give fresh things.
 
AntoniaJames January 2, 2021
luvcookbooks, what a great idea! You've inspired me to find a food pantry or soup kitchen that takes fresh food. (You know about Little Free Libraries, no doubt. But did you know there are also Little Free Pantries? I discovered one at a local elementary school that I sometimes ride by when I'm cycling. I now regularly shop for and stock it - but I digress. )

While updating my freezer inventory the other day I realized that I still have some D'Artagnan sausages I ordered online that I just don't care for, so I'm going to find a local organization that will take it. I can see taking armfuls of basil and bags of vegetables from my garden in the summertime. Thanks for the great tip, and Happy New Year! ;o)
 
luvcookbooks January 2, 2021
Happy New Year’s to you as well!! 2020 is not done with us yet but I hope we will be past the worst in the next six months.