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Pre-lockdown, my culinary repertoire had withered to a weekly roast chicken, a pasta with sautéed cauliflower and pine nuts learned from a friend I lost touch with years ago, and the typing in of delivery orders. Our two children had decamped to college, and I wasn’t mourning the empty nest. We had looked after them for 20 years, and it was time for them to strike out on their own and for my husband and me to have time to ourselves. For the previous two decades, we did our best to have dinner together most nights, but aside from weekends, those meals were often cooked in haste and enjoyed with conversation peppered with begrudging one-word answers and nattering arguments.
Reunited as a foursome in early March, we began to take two, often three daily meals together. Civilized, lovely, delicious meals on a well-laid table, sharing wine and discussing ideas. Early on we each leaned in to our demographically appropriate mentors: Alison Roman’s millennial fixings for my 21-year-old daughter; Ina Garten’s reliably comforting dishes for middle-aged me; Sam Sifton on the NYT Cooking app for bro-ey yet credible guidance for my podcasting husband; and the opposing tentpoles of Marcella Hazan’s four-hour Bolognese and Betty Crocker’s just-add-water-and-an-egg baked goods for my previously culinarily disinclined 19-year-old son. Everyone pitched in, but as I was the only one not Zooming most of the day for work or education, I really stepped up.
I was ahead of the curve on the whole self-sufficient 19th-century agrarian lifestyle that seemed to be trending so vigorously on Instagram. Now that there was nowhere to go, everyone appeared to be stitching blankets, baking bread, dyeing yarn, tending vegetables, or keeping livestock. A few years earlier, I had left a demanding job to live more in sync with nature’s seasons than corporate deadlines. I had long grown my own vegetables, but I began to make Appalachian brooms and European willow baskets in the manner they had always been made until industry rendered them obsolete. I had, however, struggled mightily to give a shape to my days—each was like a blank page that could be filled this way or that.
Enter cooking. Stirring away day after day during quarantine reminded me of an old Italian restaurateur who once told me that the women in his poor rural village would pass the day almost entirely in the kitchen. There was the planning, prepping, making, and clearing and cleaning of a meal, and when that was done, it was time for the planning, prepping, and making of the next one. It’s not been all that, but cooking has been the stake in the ground to which my day is tethered. Noon to 1 p.m. is set aside for cooking, 1 to 2 p.m. for lunch and tidying up. At around 7, I begin dinner prep, and around 9, supper is cleared and dishes done.
Around these fixed axes, other things can occur. If I am to weave a basket, write an article, tend the garden—or engage in my own lockdown-inspired, Instagrammed pioneer fantasy of dyeing linen with foraged plants—it must be wedged into the remaining hours. All these other things are more likely to happen now though, because of the perverse luxury and drudgery of cooking during a pandemic lockdown. And that’s just half the gift that cooking and eating at home every single day has bestowed.
Lunches are taken together as a nice reprieve if schedules allow. (Often, I deliver meals to various laptop perches around the house, or they are squirreled away by those with a quick break.) But when we come together at dinnertime, the day is really over; the meal can be lingered over as no one is rushing off anywhere. Together we are eating and drinking, and yes, bickering, but also hashing out issues of politics and justice and the merits of various books, movies, and stand-up routines. We are learning about, and from, one another. If you want to get your adolescent child to confide in you, the advice often given is to drive them in a car but not to look at them, and they will begin to spill forth. But here, with adult children, it is the direct conversation over meals, often animated by alcohol, that is allowing us to better understand and guide one another.
While it is really just time that we have been sharing, it feels more like something hard and solid, rather than ephemeral—like something we will each have deep in our pockets when we disperse and our lives go where they might. Whatever that thing is, it came from time spent around a table.