December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Isolation innovation

By |2021-04-29T18:22:39+02:00April 26th, 2021|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Tales from the virus castaways... in southern France.

allelujah! Food is on fire. Everyone I know (and plenty I don’t) are cooking, baking, and thinking about what’s headed for the table.

All around, cooks are telling me about their menus, their spontaneously put-together meal combinations, and their wild plunges into never-before-attempted recipes. Yes, we can — cook, and it’s a delightful discovery to hear aloud.

Wonderful to hear, this joy, refreshing in so many ways, especially when the world before COVID (BC?) appeared to be moving into eternal Take-Out-Land or covered-in-plastic cuisine that, yes, filled the stomach but did not satisfy the spirit.

Let me back up.

In March 2020, we essentially holed up in our house in southern France, spending way too much time trying to find the quintessential anti-pandemic gear and taking deliveries (left at the door) of large quantities of toilet paper, cat food, and other seeming necessities to keep us dined (and wined) for what we assumed would be a relatively brief period of confinement. We spent time in our small garden and took intermittent walks through the empty hills around our village.

Is it too strange to say that this unreal existence has been often joyful, stimulating — even enlightening?

Now, one year and three months later, here we are still, behind closed doors.

No visits to kids, no grandkids for summer, no al fresco lunches at our favorite Il Buco restaurant in Rome, and for that matter, no Rome.

Our travels, alas, have ceased.

But, as I’ve mentioned before in this spot, I dove into cooking with renewed energy, finding ingredients that had long been lurking in my pantry, or hibernated in the freezer, or just long overlooked or underused ingredients. The tidbits became inspiration.

A stray dish of penne all’arrabbiata, a dab of cucumber raita for curries, assorted cheeses, and a few eggs can turn out a memorable frittata. In these times, almost all is unique and never to be duplicated. Opportunism rules the kitchen.

The next frittata might be cooked rice, half of a sweet onion, fresh tomato sauce, bits of bacon or a rogue grilled sausage left from a polenta meal, with a handful of chopped fenugreek (picked in the hills around here) tossed in for fun before I beat the eggs with Parmesan, and all of it hits the pan.

One inspired evening, I puréed an entire Butter Chicken curry with yogurt, lemon, and broth, ending up with a smooth, silky soup that will remain on my staples list forever.

Is it too strange to say that this unreal existence has been often joyful, stimulating — even enlightening?

Still is.

But the other side of all this is not so amusing.

We have been vaccine pierced by Pfizer, yet here we stay, wary, watching the mutations creep in, wondering if the vaccines can stop those twists.

Al the while, carefree tourists, unmasked all too often, meet the gloriously flowering spring with their presence. We in turn plot our future more cautiously.

Yet we’re fortunate. A fresh vegetable and fruit vendor brings artichokes, eggplants, zucchini, cheeses, and the first strawberries of the season, and we can drive within the 10k limit to have necessities placed in the trunk where packaged things can sit in their 3-day quarantine.

But many are preoccupied with having enough food to go around, with when they can have their jobs back.

Many are not so fortunate. Creativity in the kitchen is not at the top of their list. Their children, too young for vaccines, are out of school and going bonkers — creating culinary delights out of leftovers is not high on their priority.

They are more preoccupied with having enough food to go around, with when they can have their jobs back, with how to manage safely in the world again until the economy improves.

Solutions are not evident, nor easy.

But cooking has given me solace, eased anxieties, stimulated my brain. I was lucky. I was born loving to cook. Perhaps out of this world-wide affliction we share with one another there will be more awareness of what now matters that might have been long ignored, of what is now to be treasured, and how the bizarre leftovers of this pandemic experience can actually be made into an inspired frittata for the future.

If a strange conglomeration simmering in your pot helps to get your body and soul back to normal, or even close, simmer away.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.