How Learning to Cook Eased My Pandemic Anxiety

A new hobby became an antidote to fear, boredom, isolation, immobility and, of course, hunger.
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Photography by Georgina Manok.

Then there was a time when I thought I smelled a gas leak coming from my oven and, sniffing the air compulsively while I cooked, wondered if the meal I was cooking would be my last. (As it turns out, there really was a minor problem with my oven and I had it fixed.)

Then there was the time when I became convinced that a piece of yellow silicon from a pair of tongs I was using had broken off into a carrot dish I was preparing, and I spent more than a few minutes eyeing the carrots to see if I could spot the perfectly camouflaged bit of synthetic material before swallowing it.

Beyond these episodes of my one-man “Anxious Guy Tries Cooking” show, there were little burns and cuts, and beeping smoke alarms, and broken plates and a minor puncture wound on one of my fingers from a jagged shell of an oyster I was shucking. There was the time when I placed a banana bread in the oven and, about ten minutes in, realized I had forgot to add butter, so I took it out, wrestled it from its pans, tossed it back into the mixing bowl, added the butter and plopped it back into the pan.

But like most other instances in my life, my worst fears never came to pass. I didn’t blow up my kitchen or burn Georgina’s house down. I didn’t accidentally eat any bits of plastic or glass or metal (as far as I know). I didn’t get food poisoning. I didn’t sustain any major knife wounds. And when things did go slightly awry, it was hardly disastrous. There was a lesson here for me, and for other similarly catastrophe-minded folks: What we fret about rarely, if ever, comes to pass. The vivid mental images of disaster that play in our minds are just that: mental images.

And there’s another lesson, too. Mark Twain once said, “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.” And so it happened with me and cooking. As we crossed the one-year anniversary of the lockdown, my relationship to cooking has been transformed. The kitchen is no longer an arena of anxiety; it has become a genuinely happy place. Cooking, my younger self would be baffled to learn, is now something I do to relax at the end of a long day.

ne year into my cooking-in-quarantine experiment, the stack of HelloFresh recipe cards that I have completed is more than an inch thick. And with the confidence from all of those training hours, I have begun to attempt more ambitious recipes from the New York Times cooking database: corn and coconut soup, olive walnut pasta, broccoli with anchovies and garlic, cumin-baked pork chops, ginger-lime chicken.

Before embarking on this COVID cooking journey, I remember marveling at a friend who had instinct in the kitchen — a seemingly ingrained sense for what to make, how to make it and which ingredients to add or subtract to make the flavors of a particular dish pop. And, somehow, miraculously, I have begun to develop a cooking instinct of my own. In some cases, I’ve even veered off-recipe to try a few successful inventions, like sliced figs topped with goat cheese and a drizzle of honey and balsamic glaze.

It’s been tremendously satisfying to develop such a life skill. But it’s also proof of something bigger. For most of my life, I viewed my inability to cook as an immutable fact, as fixed as the color of my eyes. But this was fiction. With practice, with commitment, and, yes, with a few scary moments, I am now a Guy Who Cooks. Cooking showed me that narratives about ourselves don’t have to be permanent.

Nor are the stories we tell ourselves about the world. While cooking has had the surprising and wonderful effect of making me more appreciative of my favorite restaurants, it’s also de-mystified them. Some of my most exciting moments in the COVID kitchen were when I attempted dishes that, for some reason, I thought that only restaurants had a license to make, like coconut shrimp or French fries. These were dishes that seemed too difficult or unwieldy to make at home or involved certain aspects that scared me off: a razor-sharp shucking knife aimed at my palm, a pot of bubbling frying oil. But then, I simply tried them, and the walls that I had assumed loomed around me turned out to be nothing but air. What other rules am I heeding that never existed?

s I write this, it’s hard to avoid thinking about how trivial my story is. While I tinkered in the kitchen, thousands of Rhode Islanders — mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins — lost their lives to COVID-19. Thousands more fell ill or were caught in one of the cascading crises that followed the pandemic: job losses, business closures, child care routines disrupted, loneliness, depression. Given my interest in culinary matters, one statistic from 2020 remains seared in my mind: a report from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank that one in four households in the state had lacked adequate food in the previous year. My story is impossibly small in comparison to these. And one of the distinct feelings of my pandemic experience was a sense of searching for a proper response to the suffering happening around me, over which I had so little control. What is a humane and proper response to the loss of twenty Rhode Islanders, or 4,000 Americans, in a single day? What does being a good citizen, neighbor, community member and human being look like in times? I want to enter the mix of horror, helplessness, isolation and dread that I felt into the record. I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

To be sure, I tried to be useful when I could. I donated to a GoFundMe campaign that delivered food for frontline medical workers from local restaurants. I converted the $600 stimulus check I received in late 2020 into a year’s worth of automatic, $50 monthly donations for the Rhode Island Food Bank. I submitted photographs to the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive, a digital project co-run by the Rhode Island Historical Society and Providence Public Library. I followed the latest public health protocols about masking and distancing and used my modest online platform to post messages reassuring other anxiety- and depression-prone folks that they weren’t alone. And, because I’m an inveterate news consumer, I spent plenty of time glued to my phone or computer, eyeing the latest updates, the death tolls and public health alerts.

While I know my personal experience doesn’t compare to the trauma of first responders and others who experienced this crisis acutely, I also don’t want to erase it entirely. COVID was a terrifying challenge we were all handed without much warning or chance to prepare. And each of us, in our own way, had to figure out how to survive in a radically disrupted world. This involved high-stakes improvisation in almost every realm of our lives.

During this time of terrifying headlines and eerily abandoned streets, we needed distractions as much as we needed food or sleep. I’ve spoken with friends about some of the unusual hobbies they picked up. One, a fifty-something college professor, adopted a puppy and started playing the PlayStation game Grand Theft Auto. Another, who wasn’t much of a television person before COVID, became a fan of the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots.” To my eyes, these aren’t just quirky quarantine activities; they’re psychological survival strategies. They were the things that helped to keep our humanity intact, and they deserve credit as such. That’s what cooking was for me.

As we begin to emerge on the other side of this catastrophe, the future remains opaque and somewhat ominous. But, whatever happens, I’m quite certain it will involve sharing our stories about this time of fear and isolation and loss. Some stories will be big in scope; others, like mine, will be small. Each will be essential to our collective healing and the thawing-out of our long-dormant social skills.

My hope is that we can do this talking indoors, without masks and around food. And when that day comes, I hereby volunteer to make tuna melts.