Cooking through Covid

On mail-order food, dinner with Mom, and a whole bunch of sardines

Photo: michael witte

On Monday, March 16, I launched into a full-on cooking frenzy. I had left New Orleans, where I live part of the time, for the Mississippi Delta to avoid the end of Mardi Gras. As the world now knows, I avoided a lot more than that. On the same day, the New Orleans mayor more or less locked the place down; on Friday one of my oldest and closest friends came down with COVID-19. She is now fine, but within two weeks cases had exploded across the city. Feeling helpless and isolated (well, not completely—I had the ever-trusty Henry the beagle and a veritable bird sanctuary for company), I ordered a ton of food online. If I am honest, I was driven at least as much by the desire to never ever set foot inside Kroger or Walmart again, or at least not for a very long time. And then, you know, the food arrives in all these coolers and boxes and you feel compelled to cook it. 

Included in the stash were whole briskets with which I made my own corned beef (not nearly as good as that found at Stein’s in New Orleans—first lesson learned) and a supremely time-consuming recipe from my beloved Suzanne Goin that involved marinating and braising the meat, which was then accompanied by a horseradish crema and a potato puree that required two types of potato. I made Lidia Bastianich’s Bolognese sauce, ramp pesto, at least three of Nigella Lawson’s ridiculously easy and tasty clementine cakes. In the weeks leading up to Easter, I researched English hot cross buns, ordered a slew of dried fruit to go in them, and ended up opting for an English muffin with marmalade on the morning of. I learned to spatchcock a chicken (why have I not been doing this all my life?) and made tons of stock with the bones. One day I went especially bananas and ordered two dozen cans of sardines and mackerel in olive oil—each. I had visions of making a French potato salad with tarragon and chives and the mackerel with a lemony aioli on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Next month perhaps, when I can face peeling another potato. As I type, there is another brisket and an entire side of bacon in the freezer.

What I realized is that while cooking for oneself is supposed to be a healthy expression of self-love, self-care, whatever, it is cooking for other people that really brings me joy. In those very early days, the only beneficiary was Henry, who will now barely eat his own food, knowing as he does that if he is patient enough and makes enough noise (an unsettling new development), he will be the happy recipient of sourdough croutons, morsels of chicken, a chunk of Parmesan or Vermont cheddar, or a slice of prosciutto that is better suited to wrapping round the incredible cantaloupe my friend Rabbit brings me every Thursday when the melon man sets up a stand on the highway. I was, until not too long ago, a creature of restaurants and the night. Henry knew he had best eat his own food if he wanted to eat at all.

By the end of the first week, I was sharing with two-legged folk, leaving packages on the hoods of my friends’ cars and receiving the same. Rabbit brought me the melon, fresh eggs, homemade wine vinegar, divine runny cheese, and the best vichyssoise I’ve ever tasted. In return, I took him olive oil cake, the aforementioned pesto, tarragon from the herb garden I planted, the pâtés I continually overorder. My mother sent me bits of almost everything she made (including tomato aspic, blackberry cobbler, and a congealed cranberry salad I have loved since childhood), and I returned the favor. On Mother’s Day we sat at opposite ends of my outdoor table and shared a rack of lamb with an inspired mint sauce (chicken stock, fish sauce, honey, a ton of mint, and the lamb jus).

It was magic. We had missed each other. We had cocktails and looked at the trees I’d just planted and drank a bottle of delicious Pomerol with dinner. Then came the gnats. It is not enough that we are living through a full-fledged plague. If you live where I do, you also have plenty of pestilence. This year, during one of the most beautiful springs of my lifetime, millions of buffalo gnats (so named because they are fat, brown, and furry) were encouraged by the high water to cross the river from Arkansas, effectively ruining our lives. Nothing kills them, though they are (very) mildly deterred by a spray called Buggins, which is not ideal perfume for dining, or (rumor has it) a scent from Victoria’s Secret that I imagine to be worse. They stick around until it’s too hot to go outside, which means I’m going to have to start sleeping on plastic sheets—my brand-new embroidered cotton numbers (food is not remotely the only thing I’ve been ordering online) look like Zorro has been after me. The welts (which don’t respond to even the highest prescription of cortisone) make mosquito bites look like pindots. 

I realize that in the hideous and highly unfair world we are living in, it seems pretty petty to bitch about gnats. And perhaps even pettier to damn the whole of Arkansas as their benighted source. I have a lot of fine friends from the Arkansas Delta, but I personally have witnessed some seriously bad stuff going on in the rest of the state. When I was twenty-two and working for the summer in Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau, a lot of white-supremacist groups were rearing their ugly heads, and the editors in New York sent me to check out the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a particularly nasty bunch who referred to the U.S. government as ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government) and were preparing for the end-times in a camp somewhere in the Ozarks, not far from where the Netflix show starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney is set. In retrospect, I should have been a tad more nervous about charging up in there in the company of a mouthy photographer, but when I called the leader, I realized he craved attention and, anyway, I knew these guys. Like almost every redneck with whom I grew up, they didn’t want to pay taxes, didn’t want to send their kids to school with African Americans (though that is certainly not the term they used), didn’t want to hear from their “women” (whom they housed in a separate dorm with the kids, who received little education and went mostly barefoot), did not, when it came down to it, want to have their dubious manhood messed with in any way. They sat around and told dirty jokes and read porn and scratched their hairy stomachs. But they also wore MAC-10 submachine guns crossed over those big bellies and had a fleet of tanks on the premises, along with an anti-tank rocket launcher and piles of sawed-off shotguns. For fun every night, they practiced shooting moving plywood cutouts of people inside “homes” in a “community” they dubbed Silhouette City. After three days, I badly wanted to get out of there and urged the magazine not to give them the cover story they so desperately craved. The FBI finally took them down, but not until after they’d trained many like-minded folks to go out and wreak their own havoc and one of the members shot a gun store owner and an African American police officer. I drove away over a gorge on a bridge the Klan was said to have wired with explosives in case they needed a no-access safe harbor, and what I know now is that I should never have been so cavalier in my assessment of these bozos, examples of another kind of pestilence that has infected American life from the get-go. These guys were like the damn gnats: You don’t always see them coming and you don’t know the harm they’ve done until you’re practically bleeding to death. 

So what to do? While we are faced with larger reckonings, the smaller act of cooking suddenly doesn’t seem so crazy. We are, most of us, in the midst of a national wake, grieving for an ever-growing number of lives lost and dreams—still—deferred. Where I come from, a wake demands food, a lot of it. My mother is a master of the art of the funeral lunch. Black churches usually call them repasts. By any name, I see piles of fried chicken, squash casserole, pound cakes, cornbread, green beans cooked forever with ham hocks, potato salad, macaroni with a ton of cheese. When my aunt died, I arrived at her house after a long drive, expecting to see at least one or two of those things on the dining room table. Instead there was bad takeout Chinese. Where the hell was the love in that? 

Everyone I know has a signature dish for such occasions. My dear friend Helen Bransford, who knows a lot about a lot of things, always brings tomato sandwiches, an inspired idea if you think about it, perfect for nervous pick-up eating and exactly what anybody with any sense wants to eat. I will be making a whole lot of those in the coming days, peeling the tomatoes, as my mother always does, and spreading the crustless white bread with her sublime homemade mayonnaise. I want the lobster roll I perfected last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, Gulf shrimp boiled for a nanosecond and eaten, still steaming, from the colander in the sink. I’ll make “fried” corn off the cob, okra and tomatoes, thick Roman steaks with garlic and rosemary like the ones at Nino in Rome, a place I will most likely not visit anytime soon. This is less ambitious than my original crazed efforts but far more soul filling. Meanwhile, if the end-times do come, I have a whole lot of mackerel and sardines to get me through.  

This article appears in the August/September 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.