I COOKED TO COPE

June 27th, 2020

Words by Suzy Katz · Artwork by Eniko Eged

We let the fruit marinate in mason jars on our windowsill as we listened to new mandates and restrictions on social distancing

When New York went into lockdown in late March, I felt the walls of my tiny apartment close in on me for the first time in half a decade. Once the envy of my friends, I no longer enjoyed the comestible benefits of living in Chinatown now that my favorite neighborhood restaurants and shops were closed. All I saw were the stairs of my dilapidated six-story walkup, my cramped living quarters, and a kitchen that was ill-equipped for anything other than reheating spicy mapo tofu or rice noodle rolls. I was living alone at 34 and had been recently laid off from my job as a retail sales associate and, feeling isolated and withdrawn in my new reality, I struggled without a daily routine. Out of concern, my aunt and uncle insisted that I sequester with them in their waterfront home in Merrick, Long Island, instead. 

I was grateful to be able to leave the epicenter of the virus behind for wide-open spaces. Merrick was lush with eye pleasing vegetation, making the dangers back home feel distant. I watched neighbors walk their dogs and cycle past our windows or tend to their front yards without fear. My aunt, a longtime cooking enthusiastic, took it upon herself to create our daily menus. Leaving us with full bellies was how she conveyed her love for us. When she began including foods from my childhood, I found unexpected solace in their preparation and decided to join in. Cooking alongside my aunt helped me compartmentalize the horrors we watched unfold on television. For the next eight weeks, I spent hours every night in the kitchen, cooking family recipes stored on my laptop long ago. Instead of attempting baked bread or whipped coffee like the influencers I followed on social media, I turned to iterations of the food my Ukrainian Jewish grandmother fed me as a child. I don’t recall feeling any particular fondness for these foods back then. I was always making the case for ordering in pizza or even cracking open a can of SpaghettiOs like the ones advertised on TV. Yet viewing these meals through the  lens of time and distance, my palate could now appreciate the nuanced flavors of earthy mushrooms and berries. The ingredients felt like they celebrated bountiful lands and were inherently good for me. 

Whenever a familiar recipe would turn up online I immediately saved it into my virtual recipe box. Without work or daily responsibilities, I was able to slice, dice, and chop under the watchful eye of my aunt as we tackled the cooking instructions I had bookmarked. I gravitated towards comfort foods that celebrated hearty root vegetables and pungent spices. These were the foods I imagined my ancestors subsisted on during bitter winters as they waited out the pogroms or war. Together we transformed these foods of the past and found purpose. By working with our hands, we felt productive and in control of our situation instead of powerless. We tinkered with old family recipes and made them more pleasing to look at. Instead of relying on traditional spices we added heat and dimension from other cultures with slivers of serrano peppers and lemongrass. Russian vinaigrette salad wasn’t haphazardly dumped into a mixing bowl like it had been in the past, but served in ramekins and garnished with cilantro.

"Bon Appetit"’s Fall-Apart Caramelized Cabbage recipe was a front-runner in elevating the humble cruciferous vegetable once relegated exclusively to side dishes. We pickled sumptuous beefsteak tomatoes, marrying them with brine, cloves, garlic, and a heavy-handed shower of dill. We let the fruit marinate in mason jars on our windowsill as we listened to new mandates and restrictions on social distancing. I inhaled the tart, earthy flavors found in my family’s recipe for borscht, the blood-red broth full of cooked beets, potatoes, and carrots. 

The conversations we had over our meals allowed us to conjure up past relatives. A simple salad of radish, scallions, cucumbers, sour cream, and dill brought back my grandfather’s laugh, if only for a moment.  My aunt recounted my grandmother’s childhood stories of survival and resourcefulness: her mother made stews from old leather shoes and glue, then rationed them between her four children. 

Carefully constructed grocery store shopping lists were a welcome reprieve from the daily broadcasts of unemployment, illness, and death. One evening as we cored and caramelized apples for dessert, my aunt and uncle began experiencing an incessant itch in the back of their throats. I feared that they had come down with the virus, but testing was unavailable and no one wanted to go into an overcrowded hospital. As their symptoms progressed into what looked like the flu, they decided to recover at home. I cooked up a hearty traditional fish soup, peppery ground ginger tea, and sour hibiscus tea. These were remedies I hoped would cure them, and I tried to help with daily responsibilities as my aunt and uncle grew sicker. It was challenging to maintain my distance while staying under one roof. They eventually found their way to a testing center and by the end of the week it was official: they were amongst the 40,000 recorded positive cases for coronavirus on the island. 

On the third day of the virus, while preparing a simple vegetable broth for my aunt and uncle, I realised I couldn’t make out any of the smells emanating from the liquid, even as I stood with my nose over the gurgling pot. I could feel the hot steam hitting my face, but that was all. Panicking, I cut open a clove of garlic and, again, smelled nothing. It appeared that I, too, had come down with COVID-19. As the infection took a stronger hold in both my aunt and uncle, I could only helplessly watch. Their violent coughing echoed through the walls of the house. My uncle’s breathing soon became more laborious. Eventually I watched as EMS workers carried him into a waiting ambulance. He was hospitalized for pneumonia, while my aunt remained feverish and bedridden at home. My symptoms of dizziness and extreme fatigue remained mild but obstructed daily life. 

Wrought with anxiety, I was no longer able to throw myself into cooking. My uncle was 70 years old and overweight, and suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes. I paced the house awaiting news on his condition from the hospital. Takeout containers and dishes full of uneaten food piled up in the sink. Eating meals became a burden instead of a welcome escape as our appetites vanished. My inability to smell meant that, by extension, I could no longer taste food. The loss of my sense of smell was replaced by a perplexing new symptom called phantosmia where my mind triggered olfactory hallucinations. My brain conjured fetid odors that heightened my feelings of anxiety. The insidious scent of gasoline haunted me. 

After two weeks, my uncle’s medical team determined that he was virus-free. My aunt’s symptoms had also lessened over the ensuing days of self-quarantine. Since I no longer felt exhausted, I returned to preparing food for them, though I had no intention of eating it myself since everything I put into my mouth tasted like sand. Now, no longer dizzy or nauseated, I am back on my feet and in the kitchen once more. As the lockdown in New York City drags on, I’ve returned to cooking to quell my nerves in my Merrick enclave. In my COVID-19 chef’s uniform - disposable gloves, a KN95 mask, and an apron - I’ve restarted my quarantine custom of cooking to cope. While I can’t yet taste or smell my creations, I’ve found a new respite in perfecting the presentation of these foods. I never cared for how Instagrammable food looked before, but after becoming exposed to this illness, I’m newly cognizant of the texture and colors of what I make. The bright pinks, deep browns, and murky reds of foods of the Russian diaspora are some of my favorites. I’ve even taken to preparing meals full of scents I once found repellant since they no longer affect me. Focusing on traditional foods rich in immune-boosting antioxidants and vitamins, I set out pickled herring with thinly sliced raw onion fanned out around the fish for the first time. I prepared a cold green borscht full of spinach, garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs. 

True to the stereotype of emotionally avoidant Eastern Europeans, my family is not very big on outward displays of affection. Through food and these small acts of service, I can speak for all of us: I’m grateful that we’re on the mend and feeling better than we have in weeks. I love them dearly, and I can’t wait to get my sense of smell back. 

Suzy Katz is a freelancer who writes about mental health, culture, and drugs. She lives in Chinatown with her dog Falkor. You can follow her misadventures on Instagram @suzy_sometimes and her musings on Twitter @suzysometimes

Eniko Eged is a Budapest-based graphic designer and illustrator studying at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. She loves illustrative narratives with simple and intuitive visual forms, and looks for graphic language that is simple, a bit abstract and elicits a strong atmosphere as well as a feeling of familiarity. You can follow her work on Instagram @nikoenikoeniko

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