I’m a science journalist covering Covid-19. Cooking felt grounding and manageable—until it wasn’t.
courtesy of Yasmin Tayag
courtesy of Yasmin Tayag
A lifetime ago (aka February), I reported on everything, from lab-grown meat to lithium-ion batteries to synthetic psychedelics. Now the coronavirus, and the relentless uncertainty shrouding it, consumes every moment of my professional and private life.
Except when I’m cooking.
Writing for digital media means that I often spend 10 hours creating but never producing anything I can hold in my hands. The act of cooking—making a tangible object that suffuses my home and body with palpable heat, smell, flavor, and noise—can be the realest experience of my entire day. I crave it even more than the food itself.
This urge has become especially intense during the pandemic, because writing about the coronavirus is deeply unsatisfying. While experts have made great strides, they still don’t fully understand the virus that has brought the planet to its knees. How long does immunity last? Can kids spread it? Will it spike again in the fall? More often than not, there’s only one conclusion a responsible journalist can come to: Scientists don’t know yet, so stay home and wear a mask.
Don’t get me wrong: Stories about what we do and don’t know provide a valuable service. But after typing them into a little screen every day, shutting that screen only to go to bed in the same room, and repeating the process every day for four months, I am finding it more and more difficult to shake the disturbing feeling that I am not doing anything at all.
The image of roasting the chicken—tangy, golden, and flecked with oregano—was more than a nice distraction from the scientists’ grim projections. It was a promise of certainty.
I felt this way in April, while poring through a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine speculating that the virus would not relent this summer (they were right). As I read, I fantasized about mincing garlic for a souvlaki-inspired marinade. I pictured signing off from Slack, tying on a mask, and walking five blocks to the grocery for fresh chicken breasts. They would bathe in a bright yogurt-lemon sauce while I tossed cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions with good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, like I’d done countless times before. The image of roasting the chicken—tangy, golden, and flecked with oregano—was more than a nice distraction from the scientists’ grim projections. It was a promise of certainty. That evening, I shut my laptop and did exactly what I had imagined, savoring the predictability.
But just as I was ready to serve the meal, I pulled the Pyrex dish from the oven and it shattered in my gloved hand, sending golden cubes of chicken tumbling among the shards. I wept uncontrollably, standing in a lake of warm yogurt and glass. The randomness of it was the cruellest part: How many times had I used this dish, in this oven? I chose this meal because it was foolproof, but it managed to make a fool of me. I sobbed with rage at the coronavirus for upending even the most reliably mundane parts of my life.
Indulging in the pathos of the situation was validating until it was sad, a feeling I’ve grown accustomed to during the pandemic. I had to pull myself together and move on. There was glass and chicken to clean up. The cucumbers and tomatoes still bobbed in their dressing; there was leftover rice and lentil soup in the fridge. The makeshift meal I cobbled together was not the Greek feast I imagined, but it was warm, and it was fortifying.
Most importantly, it was real.