When news came in early March that we were likely headed into a two-week lockdown, everyone around me took a different approach to figuring out how they’d take care of one important part of existing: feeding themselves.
For some people, the most logical thing was to stay inside and order food. Others started stockpiling. I went into my local grocery store one day for flour (there was none left, I was too late), and saw a guy in a frat sweatshirt hauling a 20-pound bag of rice to the checkout counter. I wonder if he ever opened it after he bought it.
I started making stews and soups like crazy, putting each in a quart container in the freezer after they were done simmering away on the stovetop for hours. At least if it were really end of times, I reasoned -— and everything not nailed down in the grocery store continued to fly off the shelves for months -— I’d have a month’s supply of lentil kielbasa, chicken and rice, chicken tortilla, and chicken and lentil soups.
The still-dreary weather of early spring, combined with the listlessness, the unknown, and the stress of the first couple months of the pandemic led to a baking boom.
We began to bake not only to sustain ourselves but because it was a practical hobby for people privileged enough to be at home all day, every day. Grocery stores ran out of flour and yeast. King Arthur Flour put in place a two-bag maximum for all online orders and canceled rush shipping. During the last week of March, Google searches for the word “bread” hit an all-time high. Suddenly my Instagram feed became a wealth of pictures of sourdough starters, loaves baked in Banneton baskets, sheet-trays full of focaccia, and Kitchenaid stand mixers.
For the first and only time, I went live on Instagram and prepared and baked my tested-and-true pumpkin chocolate chip cookie recipe, seasonality be damned. Whether out of boredom or a genuine interest in cooking, a few hundred people showed up to watch at least part of my 40-minute cookie-baking demonstration. It was stressful running around the kitchen, constantly aware of how I must come across on camera. When I stopped going live that day, I decided I’d keep baking, but that it was best if I leave the broadcasting to the influencers.
How 2020 made home cooks of us all
Our habits have only continued to shift since those dark, early days of the pandemic. As a lifelong baker and cooker, my own habits have evolved, but so have everyone else’s.
Nick Holzherr, the founder of the AI-enabled recipe saving, meal planning, and online grocery shopping app Whisk, told me that in the seven weeks after March 23, when restrictions took effect globally, that recipe-saving on the recipe sharing platform rose 5.2 times, while recipe viewing was up 5.3 times. In other words, people were at least aspiring to cook more. And the shopping lists they built using Whisk reflected this too: Before March 23, the average number of items someone added to their shopping list on Whisk was 15, but it jumped 33 percent to 20 percent after that period.
“People became a lot more intentional with their recipe viewing; they wanted to save recipes so that they could then go and cook later,” Holzherr told me. “They weren’t just viewing recipes for fun; they were much more serious about cooking the recipes.”
What Whisk saw is echoed more generally by broader industry trends. According to the Food Industry Association, 40 percent of consumers are cooking at home more in recent months. A new report from Acosta shows that 55 percent of shoppers are eating at home more often since the pandemic began, with an uptick in certain meals. Forty-four percent of shoppers are eating breakfast at home daily, compared to 33 percent in the Before Times.
Similarly, more shoppers are eating lunch and dinner at home now. It’s an exciting time to be a burgeoning home cook: 35 percent of people surveyed said they developed a new passion for cooking during the pandemic, while 25 percent of shoppers are already sick of having to cook more.
Depending on the day, I fall into either category. Before the pandemic, I never ate breakfast at home, skipping it entirely (I know! I’m sorry!), and opting for a coffee and maybe a hastily consumed pastry from a coffee cart somewhere in midtown.
But, in March, I decided that the best way to acclimate to this new normal was to establish a routine. So every morning I made myself generally the same breakfast: two soft-boiled eggs, leftover vegetables from dinner the night before, a protein, like chicken sausage or bacon, if there was any on hand, and toast with jam and butter.
I stuck with this for approximately three months until I gave it up entirely. It turns out it’s entirely possible to get sick of the routine you thought you craved. Now I gravitate toward a piece of fruit and cereal in the mornings: a compromise, for sure, but still better than my breakfasts of yore.
“They weren’t just viewing recipes for fun; they were much more serious about cooking the recipes.” - Nick Holzherr, Founder, Whisk
Feeding yourself once the novelty wears off
It wouldn’t be realistic to expect that we’d all be excited about cooking forever in the seeming interminability of the pandemic. Sure—in March, we were all making foods we saw on TikTok, like cloud bread or Dalgona coffee, but over time, the reality (and the monotony) of cooking set in, and it became more ritualistic.
To get a sense of how people have been coping when it comes to food, I talked to Bettina Makalintal, a food and culture reporter at VICE. “I think we’ve all been in this weird rollercoaster of being really excited about cooking and feeding ourselves, and then realizing it sucks to do it for every meal of the day,” she told me. “We all don’t have to be doing exciting things in the kitchen, which I think is nice. I think at the start there was pressure to be suddenly very good at making layer cakes. I feel like now everyone’s just like, ‘if you’re feeding yourself that’s awesome.’”
I know exactly what Makalintal is talking about because it’s how I feel at least a couple of days every week. Sometimes the news is overwhelming, the reality we’re living in feels endless, and work can be daunting, but if you can find the wherewithal to defrost some chickpeas you made last week and eat them for dinner, that itself feels like an accomplishment.
I had it relatively easy going into the pandemic in a number of ways. For one, I already knew how to cook and I did it pretty frequently. So in March and early April, I reached out to a number of people who were just learning to sustain themselves for the first time to learn how they were dealing with mealtime.
What I heard from first-time cooks ran the gamut: I talked to people newly armed with Instant Pots and Dutch ovens who felt overwhelmed by the whole thing, people who had tried the foolproof sourdough bread recipe they found online and failed, and others who discovered the patient joy in baking a perfectly crusty miche. My sister proudly sent me a picture one morning of the cinnamon rolls she baked herself for the first time. Other friends leaned into cooking ambitious dinners. And then there were the people taking baby steps.
For a piece I wrote for GEN, I spoke with Manny Ocbazghi, a producer at Insider who learned how to cook cheaply for himself during the pandemic by eating a lot of eggs. After learning how much a carton of eggs cost compared to the food he’d normally get delivered to his Brooklyn apartment or that he’d order at a restaurant, he started making scrambles, expanding out into boiled, sunny-side up, and poached eggs. He had taken one skill he had known—scrambling an egg—and expanded what he was capable of doing.
I was happy to hear about someone learning how to cook, though I have to be honest—I was pretty distressed about the amount of cholesterol involved.
As COVID case numbers dipped in New York this summer, I came out of my apartment and began to cautiously eat outside at restaurants again. I’d missed all of my local haunts and, with a lack of federal or state oversight for small businesses whose sales were immeasurably impacted by the pandemic, I felt compelled to support my beloved coffee shops, diners, and wine bars the best way I knew how: Sitting outside and ordering food from them.
Still, I spent a majority of my time at home, and made a majority of my meals there too; I’d gotten so used to closing my work laptop at the end of the day, and using food to unwind, chopping vegetables or fancying up an Instant ramen packet with leftover pulled pork and a soy egg.
Home cooking after COVID
I think a lot about what cooking for ourselves will look like when the pandemic is over, whatever that means and whenever it happens.
What will happen to the new, bright orange Dutch oven I bought, the convection oven and air-fryer my roommate and I have put to use, and the dozens of Tupperware containers that have held all the meals we’ve made this year?
Will we decide to cast it all away, sick of cooking, and go back to our old habits of eating out at restaurants and ordering food in? Without a federal program to rescue small businesses during the pandemic, will there still be restaurants to go to?
I asked Makalintal what she thought people’s home-cooking habits would look like in a post-pandemic future. In general, she said, the silly, stunt-y, one-off trends will likely disappear, the ones born out of people being bored and creative at home and wondering what they’re capable of with enough time on their hands. But others will stay because their one-off hobbies have turned into something bigger.
“People have turned these trends or one-off projects into longer-term side projects, like a second Instagram account or a new mini bakery,” she told me. “I think some of those things will continue on.”
Now, as I watch case numbers tick back up again, I walk down the streets in my neighborhood and watch as table-and-chair setups get turned into eating shacks, things resembling sheds, to ward off the New York City winter. Instead of venturing out, I tend to stay home and cook more again.
This summer, I made a lot of salads and other dishes with fresh produce from the farmer's markets I felt safe enough to go visit again. But as we hunker down into winter, I find myself buying food from restaurants that have pivoted into grocery stores, ordering groceries to be delivered to my apartment before the holidays, and cooking more comfort foods.
Gone are the salads; what’s replaced them are baked pastas, roast chickens, and roasted root vegetables. Comfort foods.
When I think back to the spring, and I think about the soups and stews I made in batches to prepare for the unknown, I think about how, at the time, so much around me was out of my control. But one thing I could control was how I would take care of myself.
I’ve always been a home cook, but not to the degree I was forced to become this year. I didn’t really know what was driving me to do all this cooking. Several soups deep, it occurred to me: I was doing it to have some semblance of control over a situation that very much seemed to be spiraling out of control.
With a vaccine coming soon, I hope that when I bake and cook now, it doesn’t come from a place of fear and grasping for control. Instead, with an end in sight, every meal I make now feels like a means of nurturing myself for a better future.