How can food help us face the grinding uncertainty of pandemic life?

How Iranian food helped me get through the Covid-19 pandemic (August 2020)

Adrienne M. Varkiani

How Iranian food helped me get through the Covid-19 pandemic (August 2020)

Adrienne M. Varkiani

At first, I distracted myself by cooking elaborate Iranian specialties for loved ones. Ultimately, I settled on a smaller, more humble form of reassurance.

Iranian food is labor-intensive, a reminder that whoever made the meal really cares about you. Stews are slow cooked for half a day. Good rice takes an hour. And each dolmeh is individually hand wrapped, delicate and precise as a work of art.  

When the outbreak first started, I decided to devote myself to making these demanding dishes, which have been a constant of family meals and social gatherings throughout my life. I live with my parents, and I was job hunting amid a historic high in unemployment. I thought I could use the extra time to cook, bake, and finally write down the family recipes I had never quite mastered.

At first, I did just that. When Nowruz, the Persian new year marking the beginning of spring, came around, I made batches of Iranian sweets. Rice cookies, chickpea cookies, walnut cookies—small delights we traditionally eat to celebrate the new year. I called cousins in Iran, also sitting at home due to the coronavirus, and got their recipes.

Instead of lavishing time on meals for others, I realized, I needed to focus on caring for myself.

It was a joyful process, welcome in the way that distractions from a global pandemic can be. My mom and I wrapped up all the cookies, dropped them off at friends’ houses, and left. Even as the situation worsened, we kept up our deliveries—aware that while the coronavirus can stay on surfaces, there’s no evidence that it can be spread through food. I dropped off bagels for a friend’s birthday. My mom dropped off ash-e reshteh, a soup of beans, herbs, noodles, and drained yogurt, commonly eaten in the new year.

But cooking like this became harder as the outbreak got worse, especially after the stay at home orders. I couldn’t make entire batches of cookies if I was the only one who would eat them. And I didn’t have the energy to spend hours making rice and stew for myself. I was struggling just to keep up with the news cycle.

That was when something changed for me. Instead of lavishing time on meals for others, I realized, I needed to focus on caring for myself. But what was it I needed?

A clear glass bowl holding a variety of cookies traditionally made to celebrate the new year. August 2020

A bowl of the author’s assorted homemade Iranian cookies, prepared using family recipes.

Adrienne M. Varkiani

For me, the specific pain of this era is rooted in not knowing what the future will hold, the grinding uncertainty of every day. So far, three people close to me have gotten the coronavirus. I don’t know if others I love will stay safe, or when life will return to normal. So to try and cope, I started planning my meals in advance—something I’ve never done before. That way, the near future always comes with a small guarantee to rely on.

Every night, I check what’s in our kitchen. I write down what I will eat tomorrow for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tandoori tofu, black bean tacos, rice with dill. I try to make dishes that last only one or two meals—that way, I’m always returning to the kitchen to cook, and each day brings something new. I also write down what my snacks will be: tea with milk, dates, peanut butter bites. I revise the list the next day, because I am not a robot—I am a human being, and human beings can change their minds. I am free to alter the plan if I want to. I can decide to make cream puffs with the milk that will go bad soon.

There will be time again to cook for loved ones. For now, planning is my placebo. It’s a small assurance that as everything around us seems to be falling apart—our hospitals, our employment rate, even the aid the federal government promised—there will be a tomorrow to plan for still.

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Adrienne M. Varkiani is a writer based in Maryland. She was previously an editor at ThinkProgress and Muftah Magazine, where she focused on politics in the U.S. and the Middle East. Her work has also appeared in Extra Crispy, Slate, Teen Vogue, Mic, and others. If you have a very good baked goods recipe, you should send it to her on Twitter @adriennemahsa.