A Cook’s diary of a pandemic

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Sun 3/15

My sister’s birthday party. She’s a nurse. A bunch of others nurses and docs show up. No one seems too concerned. One doctor says: “I’m sick of hearing about this. The flu symptoms are worse.” While we’re eating cake, an alert pops up on my phone – Gov. Pritzker has ordered all restaurants and bars to be shut down effective today.

Monday 3/16:

As I descend the escalator into Whole Foods, a wave of anxiety washes over me. I watch people in a frenzy pushing around overflowing grocery carts, a certain mad desperation in their eyes. The yogurt and pasta shelves are completely wiped out. I wait for 30 minutes in the check-out line. My Monday client says they might have to quarantine with the nanny or let her go if she refuses to move in with her kid until this blows over. They’ve got newborn twins and a two-year-old. Too much risk to have her coming and going. This is the first time I realize I might be out of a job

Tues 3/17

My Tuesday client’s kids are home. They romp around upstairs with the nanny while I cook them pasta with peas and Parmesan. The older one picks around the peas. My friend Sarah texts to ask if I’d be interested in collaborating on a meal delivery effort slated for early next week. “Heck yes,” I write back. That night, my partner and I try to order take-out from the restaurant where I used to work. They are closed indefinitely.

Wed 3/18

My partner and I stop for coffee at Cafe Jumping Bean. It is empty. They’ve pushed the tables and chairs against the wall and walled them off with clear packing tape. There are signs that admonish people not to sit down. Normally, Mexican pop music blares from the speakers, but the radio sounds quietly in the background.

“How are you guys doing?” my partner asks.

“It’s really slow,” the guy behind the register responds. Normally, there are four or five baristas behind the bar. Today it’s just him and the woman who makes the sandwiches. She wears a black baseball cap with the word “MAMI” painted in gold across the front. I love that hat. On the drive home, I look at the café’s website. They’ve started a GoFund me campaign for Francisco, one of their employees, who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He’s got kids, and his wife also works in the café. Is she the sandwich lady? I donate $50. It doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

Thurs 3/19

I call Sarah, excited to share the news that I’ve already confirmed twelve orders.

“Should we do this?” she asks.

“Why not?” I say, confused by her reticence.

“They say it can live on surfaces for up to 6 hours. The other night I woke up with hot sweats.”

“Do you have a fever? Do you feel sick?”

“No. I slept with an extra comforter.”

“Let’s sleep on it.”

That night, I read my alderman’s newsletter about the crisis. He declares that the supply chain is strong: “Costco may be out of toilet paper, but America is not.”

Fri 3/20

Sarah and I decide to go for it. I sense she’s still unsure. I want to do it. Mostly because I don’t know what else to do.

Tony answers when I call Local Foods. Yes, they can sell me 15 pounds of sausage. I catch him taking the trash out as I enter the store.

“Someone put the kibosh on our plan. I can only sell you 5 pounds. Sorry about that.”

There are only a few other shoppers milling about. It’s the most empty I’ve seen a grocery store this week. The check-out clerk gives me a strange look as I unload my cart: 5 pounds of wheat berries, 10 pounds of heritage red wheat flour, 7 pounds each of black lentils and  dried cannellini beans, a giant can of olive oil. “I’m cooking for a crowd,” I say as I swipe my credit card.

Gov. Pritzker announces state-wide shelter in place order. Quarantine is effective at 5pm tomorrow. My mind starts to spin, plunging into worst-case scenarios.

Sat 3/21

Our supplier who was supposed to sell us containers isn’t answering the phone. The lock-down starts at 5pm. We have no back-up plan.

At Whole Foods, two workers wait for me as I descend the escalator. They are each wearing gloves and holding spray bottles of sanitizer, ready to wipe down the handles of carts and baskets. The yogurt shelf is almost entirely restocked. I can’t find active-dry yeast. I buy four packages of fresh yeast instead.

The cute girl with the bangs checks me out. Is her name Celia? I thank her for working during this crisis. She says she’s happy to have a chance to get away from her kids for a little bit.

Sarah calls the owner of the kitchen we’re using. They have some spare containers in storage we’re free to use.

Sun 3/22

10:00 AM – The cooking commences.

1:00 PM – I have not finished one cooking project.

5:00 PM — I burn the second tray of lemons. I don’t cry, even though I want to.

8:00 PM – I under-estimated quantities for the wheatberry dish. The containers are half-empty. I scour the walk-in and scramble to roast every vegetable I can find to make-up the difference. I’m too tired to think about the moral quandary I have around roasting peppers in late March.

10:00 PM – Sarah starts mixing the focaccia dough. I take the trash out. Fat, wet snowflakes dampen my jacket. My feet are sore. I realize there’s no way I’m running 14 miles tomorrow morning.

11:30 PM — We lock the kitchen doors and turn off the lights. I drive home in a daze, only passing one other vehicle, a delivery truck idling outside a 7-11.

1:00 AM — In bed I lather my hands with three layers of moisturizer; the tops of my hands are red and raw from obsessive hand-washing. They burn as I rub cream into the mottled skin. I fall asleep to the feeling of tingly, charred skin.

Mon 3/23

10:00 AM — Sarah and I chat aimlessly about feeling adrift in professional lives. Both of us know we don’t want to cook full-time forever. We both want to write. Neither of us know how to start.

12:00 PM – I organize 64 meals on the prep table. I use blue painter’s tape to make delivery sections. I’m taking the northside; Sarah will cover Lincoln Park and Bucktown; Jeff is going south.

2:00 PM – I miscounted. We end up with two extra shares of meals. Jeff’s friend is a nurse in the ICU at UIC hospital. She says they’ll take donations for their medical staff. Jeff agrees to drop-off.

3:30 PM – I deliver to my friend, Maggie. She comes out to meet me and brings Birdie, her beautiful Berniece mountain dog. We stand on the sidewalk and catch up on life. We talk about men, our families, shows we’re into. It feels totally normal.

5:00 PM – I make my final delivery. Michael asks me to leave it on the bench in the entryway. On my way home, I stop in a Walgreen’s looking for Clorox wipes. They’re out.

8:00 PM — I fall asleep as texts land in phone with pictures of clients’ kids smiling over plates of tomato sauce, meatballs and focaccia. “Happy campers,” one of them writes.

Tues 3/24

“This is the best meal I’ve had since I got back from Italy.”

“The food is spectacular”

“When are you guys doing this again?”

Marcella’s Tomato Sauce

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

This is one of those recipes that anyone can tackle. It comes from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking. The ingredient is short (and probably all stuff you have in the pantry). The process is simple and streamlined. Best of all, it yields a sauce whose flavor is robust in its generosity.

In the introduction to this recipe excerpted in Genius Recipes, Kristen Miglore shares this quote from Marcella: Simple doesn’t mean easy … I can describe simple cooking thus: Cooking that is stripped all the way down to those procedures and those ingredients indispensable in enunciating the sincere flavor intentions of a dish.”

  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, or canned tomatoes
  • 5T unsalted butter
  • 1 onion, halved
  • kosher salt

Put the tomatoes in a medium sauce pan with the butter, onion and salt. Simmer for 45 minutes, stirring periodically, folding the fat back into the tomato once it starts to separate. Mash the tomatoes with the back of your spoon to encourage them to disassemble and merge into the sauce.

To finish sauce, you can leave it textured and slightly chunky or pass through a food mill for a smoother consistency. Marcella suggests tossing out the onion before serving, but I quite like milling the whole thing so bits of onion comingle with the tomato.

Serve with pasta and loads of parm or use as a braising liquid for your favorite meatball recipe.

marcella tomato


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