To stay healthy, I had to stop my roommate from going to the deli all the time. So I taught him how to cook.

My roommate showed curiosity about the Italian food culture I take for granted. Perfect! We would cook Italian food together, so he wouldn’t have to go out.

“Did you make the pasta from scratch?,” asked my 85-year-old Italian grandmother, when we talked on FaceTime in mid-April. 

“I bought the pasta at the supermarket, but we are making the bechamel ourselves,” I answered. She shook her head in disapproval. I was in my claustrophobic New York City kitchen with my roommate, who was at the stove, stirring the creamy sauce with a wooden spoon. For the first time since I moved to New York from Puglia in August, 2019, I was making a tray of homemade lasagna.

You might think I was doing it for pleasure, or to occupy time. But if I have to be honest, I was making it for survival.

Today things have eased up, but in April, New York was the world epicenter of the pandemic, and the best thing to do was to stay home as much as possible. I imagine that it might have been easier living alone, or with a partner. But when you share an apartment, like most of us do in New York, you might have to deal with the unpredictability of others. And if your roommates ignored your pleas for safety, and stubbornly went out multiple times a day to buy sandwiches or a Coke, entering supermarkets and delis, they increased the risk they would bring the virus home with them. And to you.

I didn’t mind cooking; in fact, I love it. He liked learning, and he got better. I was safe, and he was happy. It was a win-win situation.

Intense medical treatments for a past illness have weakened my body. I’m healthy now, but when a flesh-eating parasite took half of my ear in the Mexican jungle, it also left me with a constant will to stay safe. This vulnerable memory made me worry even more about the whereabouts of my roommate.

I finally arrived at a potential solution. I thought to myself, What if I taught him how to cook? He had shown curiosity about the Italian food culture I take for granted. He would always ask me how I make pasta or focaccia. Perfect! We would cook Italian food together, so he wouldn’t have to go out. 

Around an hour before every meal, I knocked on his door to casually share thoughts about what we could eat. What do you think about lasagna? I can make great lasagna; I’ll teach you! If one morning I was lazy, or studying, or forgot about food, he’d come knocking on my door, and say: “Hey, I am thinking about going to the deli, what do you want for lunch?” I would immediately tell him I had something great in mind, run to the kitchen, open the fridge, and come up with a recipe on the fly.

We ate every meal together at the table, sharing a glass of wine, stories, and laughter. This back-and-forth became a rhythm, a pattern, and in the end, a great way to share a safe meal.

I knew that he knew what I was doing, and he knew that I knew. It was a funny diplomatic ballet. I didn’t mind cooking; in fact, I love it. He liked learning, and he got better. I was safe, and he was happy. It was a win-win situation.

We ate every meal together at the table, sharing a glass of wine, stories, and laughter. This back-and-forth became a rhythm, a pattern, and in the end, a great way to share a safe meal. That first lasagna turned out great, and we cooked together until he moved out over the summer, to find his luck in California.

Sometimes he messages me asking for tips on how to make pasta sauce, lasagna, or Aperol Spritz. I smile at the requests because I find myself routinely doing the same: almost every week I call my grandmother for a recipe. I had hoped to see her this summer in Italy, but the pandemic has gone on too long, canceling any travelling plan. Asking her how to cook is an excuse to connect, and for a moment feel like I am back home, together with my family.

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Agostino Petroni is a 2020 M.A.-Politics graduate of Columbia Journalism School, and a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow. An economist and a gastronome, Agostino published Memoria Nueva - Stories of Guardians of the Earth, and produced Heartwood, a documentary about gastronomic resilience of three Latin-American indigenous communities.